Earthtalk
From E - The Environmental Magazine

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EarthTalk Climate Change Nutrition

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that global warming is causing our crops to be less nutritious? – William Persson, Glendale, Ohio
It is difficult to say whether or not the climate change we are now experiencing is negatively impacting the nutritional quality of our food, researchers warn that it may be only a matter of time.
“Humanity is conducting a global experiment by rapidly altering the environmental conditions on the only habitable planet we know,” reports Samuel Myers, a research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Earlier this year, Myers and his colleagues released the results of a six year study examining the nutritional content of crops exposed to levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) that are expected to exist by mid-century. The conclusions were indeed troubling.
They found that in wheat grains, zinc concentrations were down some 9.3 percent and iron concentrations were down by 5.1 percent across the seven different crop sites (in Australia, Japan and the U.S.) used in the study.
The researchers also noted reduced protein levels in wheat and rice grains growing in the CO2-rich test environment.
According to Myers, the findings – published in June 2014 in the peer-reviewed journal Nature – are particularly troubling when one considers that some of the two to three billion people around the world who depend on wheat and rice for most of their iron and zinc already might not be getting enough of these essential nutrients.
Zinc deficiency, which can exacerbate pneumonia, malaria and other health problems, is already linked to some 800,000 deaths each year among children under five. Meanwhile, iron deficiency is the primary cause of anemia, a condition that contributes to one in five maternal deaths worldwide.
Myers and company aren’t the only ones worried about global warming and nutrient losses. Another recent study by mathematical biologist Irakli Loladze analyzed data from thousands of “free-air CO2 enrichment experiments” on 130 different species of food plants and found that increased CO2 reduced overall mineral (nutrient) content across the board.
“People don't need large quantities of the manganese or potassium they get from plants, but they do need some,” comments David Berreby on BigThink.com in response to Loladze’s findings. “And for billions of people, plants are their only source.”
Berreby is also bothered by another of Loladze’s conclusions, that higher levels of CO2 also spur increases in starches and sugars in the same plants that lose mineral content. “In other words, with increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, the valuable nutrients in these food crops are scarcer, and carbohydrates are more abundant – in effect, the nutrients are ‘diluted’,” he explains.
This syncs with research out of the University of California at Davis, which estimates that the overall amount of protein we get from our food plants will drop some three percent in the coming decades given global warming’s expected arc.
While dramatically reducing our CO2 emissions would be the best way to stave off nutrient losses in our crops, we do have some other options just in case we don’t get our act together regarding fossil fuel consumption.
Myers suggests that breeders and genetic engineers could develop new strains of crops designed to be less sensitive to atmospheric CO2 levels and/or higher in mineral content to begin with.
Regardless, upping the amount of fruits and vegetables in our diets – perhaps more easily said than done – may be more important than ever in our carbon-intensive world.
Contacts: Harvard School of Public Health, www.hsph.harvard.edu; BigThink, www.bigthink.com.
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).
Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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Studies have concluded that American kids consume very few fruits and vegetables in their school cafeterias and that they are eating many refined grains and too much saturated fat and sodium. In addition, a 2009 USA Today study found that meat used by McDonald’s and Burger King was tested for bacteria and unsafe pathogens up to 10 times as much as meat bound for U.S. school cafeterias. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)
Studies have concluded that American kids consume very few fruits and vegetables in their school cafeterias and that they are eating many refined grains and too much saturated fat and sodium. In addition, a 2009 USA Today study found that meat used by McDonald’s and Burger King was tested for bacteria and unsafe pathogens up to 10 times as much as meat bound for U.S. school cafeterias. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Education)

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: I hear that many school cafeterias have nutrition standards no better – even worse – than those of fast food chains. What can be done about this? Betsy Edison, Nashville, Tenn.
Americans have done a great job making sure that our kids have something to eat at school regardless of socioeconomic status, with the National School Lunch Program providing low-cost or free lunches to upwards of 31 million students at 92 percent of U.S. public and private schools.
But that doesn’t mean the food has been especially nutritious, and public health experts say it’s no wonder our kids are more obese than ever when we feed them trans fats, salts and sodas for lunch. Kids get half their daily calories at school, so what’s for lunch there has a big impact on health and lasting eating habits.
A 2008 analysis of school lunches by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) concluded that American kids consume very few fruits and vegetables in their cafeterias – with potatoes accounting for a third of all vegetables consumed.
IOM also found that kids were eating many refined grains and too much saturated fat and sodium. A 2009 study by USA Today found that meat used by McDonald’s and Burger King was tested for bacteria and unsafe pathogens up to 10 times as much as meat bound for U.S. school cafeterias.
In response to these stark findings, along with vigorous advocacy by First Lady Michelle Obama, things are starting to improve. In 2010, Congress voted to revamp the nation’s school lunch program by enacting the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA).
The higher standards in the new law seek to align school meals with the federal 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by upping the availability and portion sizes of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (and requiring students to select a fruit or vegetable), establishing calorie ranges, removing trans fats and limiting sodium levels.
The law also incentivizes schools to take part with generous meal reimbursement funds. The new standards went into effect in 2012 and have been working their way through school districts from coast-to-coast and getting rave reviews in the process.
Researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health who collected plate waste data among more than 1,000 students in four schools in urban, low-income school districts both before and after HHFKA took effect found that fruit selection increased 23 percent following implementation:
“Average per person fruit consumption was unchanged,” said researchers, “but because more students selected fruit overall, more fruit was consumed post-implementation.” Also, per student vegetable consumption went up 16.2 percent.
But just because public health researchers think the program is going well doesn’t mean Congress will keep it going. The Republican-dominated House of Representatives has included waivers for school lunch nutrition standards in its fiscal-year 2015 Agriculture Appropriations bill.
“The provision would allow schools with a 6-month net loss of revenue to opt out of providing the healthier meals outlined by the HHFKA,” Dr. Jennifer Woo Baidal writes in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“A deficit of any amount from any cause could allow schools to return to the same meals that the IOM found in 2008 to be nutritionally lacking.”
Consumers interested in protecting the new nutritional standards should weigh in by calling, writing or e-mailing their Congressional representatives and speaking up for healthier kids.
Contacts: National School Lunch Program, www.fns.usda.gov/nslp/national-school-lunch-program-nslp; IOM, www.iom.edu; HHFKA, www.fns.usda.gov/initiative/hhfka.
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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EarthTalk Sweden Environment

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, N.Y.
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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EarthTalk Pipeline Migrating Birds

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: How is it that migrating birds are being negatively affected by oil extraction in Canada’s Boreal forest? – Jennifer Chase, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Each year tens of million of migratory birds “overwinter” in the Canadian Boreal forest, a vast tract of mostly uninhabited coniferous woodlands and wetlands stretching from Newfoundland to the Yukon.
The area makes up some 60 percent of Canada’s total land mass, and serves as the winter home for more than half of America’s avian population. But environmentalists are worried about the impact of increasing “tar sands” oil development there and the impact it might have on wildlife populations continent-wide.
Tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay, water and a dense and viscous tar-like form of petroleum called bitumen. The bitumen is extracted from the tar sands mixture and eventually refined into transportation fuel like gasoline.
The extraction process is especially “carbon-intensive” and generates some of the dirtiest fuel around, but its abundance makes it affordable as long as industry keeps turning up new sources.
A recently released report by the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM) concluded that almost half of the 292 different migratory bird species that overwinter in Canada’s Boreal forest – as many as 75 million birds – are threatened by future tar sands development.
Further, they say, bird losses in the hundreds of thousands have already taken place as a result of overzealous and under-regulated oil development there to date.
“The direct and indirect impacts to birds from tar sands development are immense,” states the report. “Waterfowl and shorebirds land in tailings ponds that they mistake for natural water bodies and become oiled with waste bitumen and toxic elements.”
The result can be birds drowning, dying from hypothermia or otherwise suffering from the ingestion of toxins.
“Toxins from the tailings ponds and other pollutants from tar sands operations leak millions of gallons of toxic liquid waste into wetlands and forests each day, further contaminating habitat,” the groups add.
Tar sands development also contributes disproportionately to climate change. U.S. State Department analysis shows that tar sands oil is 20 percent more carbon pollution intensive than conventional oil on a “well-to-wheel” basis.
The effects of global warming on Canada’s Boreal forest are likely to include shifting food supplies, increasing numbers of damaging wildfires in forests, more droughts in wetlands and potentially dramatic changes in vegetation and the relationships between predators and prey.
Environmentalists would like to see U.S. lawmakers deny permits for the transport of Canadian Boreal tar sands oil – most of which is extracted in land-locked regions – through the U.S. in hopes of making future tar sands projects there too expensive to be worthwhile.
“Saying no to tar sands is a critical pillar in an effective strategy to protect wildlife from carbon pollution,” says NWF. Furthermore, given Americans’ growing desire to get away from costly and polluting foreign oil, it makes sense to pass on adding dirty tar sands oil to the mix.
But it remains to be seen if the Obama administration will allow construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline to transport the oil from Canada through the U.S. The welfare of millions of birds – and, indeed, our energy future – is at stake.
Contacts: NWF, www.nwf.org; NRCM, www.nrcm.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.

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EarthTalk E-Waste
According to BCC Research, in 2012 alone consumers around the world purchased 238.5 million televisions, 444.4 million computers and tablets and a whopping 1.75 billion mobile phones. Most of us discard such items within three years of purchase. (Photo by Matthijs Rouw, courtesy Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: We must really be swimming in electronic waste, what with all the iPhones and other devices that are so common. How is this all being dealt with? – Mary Shufelt, New Bern, N.C.
With electronic equipment and gadgets the fastest growing waste stream in many countries, how to deal with so-called “e-waste” may in fact be one of the most pressing environmental problems of the 21st century.
According to BCC Research, consumers around the world purchased 238.5 million TVs, 444.4 million computers and tablets and a whopping 1.75 billion mobile phones in 2012 alone. Most of us discard such items within three years of purchase, and this is driving the global growth in e-waste by some eight percent a year.
Meanwhile, a recent study conducted by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on behalf of the United Nations found that the growth in demand for and manufacturing of new electronics will result in a 33 percent increase in e-waste globally between 2012 and 2017.
But why is e-waste any more of a problem than old fashioned garbage? “Some of the materials in personal electronics, such as lead, mercury and cadmium, are hazardous and can release dangerous toxins into our air and water when burned or deposited in landfills improperly,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“And throwing away metal components, like the copper, gold, silver and palladium in cell phones and other electronics, leads to needless mining for new metals.”
Today some 80 percent of unwanted electronics are disposed of improperly. “E-waste is either discarded or exported to emerging nations, where open-air burning and acid baths are used to reclaim precious metals and other elements,” reports Maureen O’Donnell in EHS Journal.
The lack of proper controls in such countries, she says, has led to elevated lead levels in children and heavy metals pollution of soil and water. As a result, she adds, “We now stand at the forefront of a growing environmental catastrophe.”
The good news is that many nations have enacted new laws to hold manufacturers responsible for the future e-waste created by their products.
The European Union has led the way with its Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive, which calls on electronics makers to “take back” their products for recycling when consumers upgrade to something new and restricts European countries from exporting or importing e-waste.
Japan and China are among other countries that have passed similar laws.
The U.S. government has yet to follow suit, but the Electronics Takeback Coalition (ETC) reports that 21 U.S. states have implemented their own “take back” laws, and several other states are considering similar legislation.
Meanwhile, environmentalists continue to pressure Congress to consider similar legislation at the national level, given especially that Americans’ are the world leaders in generating e-waste.
Additionally, many manufacturers are adopting voluntary e-waste recycling certification standards.
One is the e-Stewards program, which helps those looking to dispose of obsolete electronics identify recycling options that adhere to high standards of environmental responsibility and worker protection.
Another program, R2 Certification, run by the non-profit SERI, is supported by several large manufacturers, including DirecTV and Microsoft.
Consumers can do their parts by choosing manufacturers that embrace so-called “producer pays” electronics recycling through participation in one of these programs.
Contacts: ETC, www.electronicstakeback.com; e-Stewards, www.e-stewards.org; SERI, www.sustainableelectronics.org; WEEE, http://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/weee/legis_en.htm;
EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com).
Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.

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EarthTalk Sunscreen

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: With summer officially here now, what can you tell us about which sunscreens are safe and which are not? – Clara Rosen, New York, N.Y.
Skin cancer is by far the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more new cases each year than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancers combined. And the rate of newly diagnosed cases of the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, has tripled over the last three decades.
But many of the sunscreens on the market do not provide enough protection from the sun’s damaging rays. Also, some of them contain chemicals that can also cause health problems in their own right.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), which assessed the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,400 “SPF” (sun protection factor) products for its 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, only one in three sunscreens for sale on the shelves of American stores offer good skin protection and are free of ingredients with links to health issues.
“That means two-thirds of the sunscreens in our analysis don’t work well enough or contain ingredients that may be toxic,” reports the group.
A big part of the problem is the lack of tougher rules from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). “The FDA’s first major set of sunscreen regulations, 36 years in the making, took effect in December 2012 and proved far too weak to transform the market,” reports EWG.
While the new rules did restrict some of the most egregious claims on sunscreen labels (such as the “patently false” ‘waterproof’ and ‘sweatproof’ claims) and ended the sale of powder sunscreens and towelettes that were too thin to provide protection against ultraviolet rays, they didn’t address inhalation threats from spray sunscreens or take into account the risks of exposure to so-called “nanoparticles” from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide varieties.
While the FDA is currently reassessing its stance on sunscreens, EWG warns it may be a while before new rules address these and other concerns, especially given push-back from regulatory-averse members of Congress and some manufacturers. So what’s a health-conscious sun worshipper to do about sunscreen?
For starters, read labels. Some common sunscreen ingredients to watch out for and avoid include: oxybenzone, which can cause allergic reactions and hormone-like effects; Vitamin A (AKA retinyl palmitate), a skin irritant and possible carcinogen; and fragrances which can contain allergens and chemicals.
Also, spray sunscreens are suspect because inhaling some of the ingredients can irritate breathing passages and even potentially compromise lung function. And EWG warns to avoid products with SPF ratings higher than 50, as their use can tempt people to apply too little and/or stay in the sun too long.
Sticking with products in the 15-50 SPF range and reapplying often makes much more sense.
Some of the best choices are those sunscreens that employ either zinc oxide or avobenzone, both which have been shown to block the most damaging ultraviolet rays effectively without the need for other potentially troublesome additives.
Some of the leading brands that meet EWG’s criteria for both safety and effectiveness include Absolutely Natural, Aubrey Organics, California Baby, Elemental Herbs, Goddess Garden, Tropical Sands and True Natural, among others.
Find these and other winners on the shelves of natural foods retailers as well as online. For a complete list of all 172 recommended sunscreens and to learn more about the risks, check out EWG’s free online 2014 Guide to Sunscreens.
Contact: EWG’S 2014 Guide to Sunscreens, www.ewg.org/2014sunscreen.
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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EarthTalk Mens Health
Research during the last few decades – including a recent report by the Environmental Working Group – has shown that environmental exposures may contribute to major diseases and health concerns that especially affect men, including heart disease, prostate cancer and infertility. (Graphic by CLUC, courtesy Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: We often see and read reports about environmental threats to women’s health, but aren’t there also concerns about which men should be especially vigilant? – Jay Walsh, Boston, Mass.
Indeed, women aren’t the only ones who should be worried about environmental threats. A recently released report (“Men’s Health: What You Don’t Know Might Hurt You”) by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) concludes that environmental exposures may have major negative impacts on men’s health as well, and outlines ways that guys can avoid some of the major risks.
“Most men understand that smart lifestyle choices – such as exercising regularly, eating a healthful diet and not smoking – make a big difference in staying healthy,” says EWG researcher and report author Paul Pestano.
“However, what many men might not know is that research in the last few decades has shown that environmental exposures may contribute to major diseases and health concerns that especially affect men, including heart disease, prostate cancer and infertility.”
He adds that toxic substances in drinking water, food, food packaging and personal care products have all been linked to serious health problems that affect millions of American men.
According to EWG, men’s heart disease risks are exacerbated by exposure to mercury in certain seafoods, Teflon chemicals in non-stick cookware, and bisphenol-A (BPA) in hard plastic containers and canned foods. Additionally, arsenic and lead in drinking water supplies is a contributing factor in elevated heart disease risks for men.
Meanwhile, certain agricultural pesticides common on fruits and vegetables as well as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that build up in meat and dairy products have been associated with prostate cancer, the second most common cause of cancer for American men.
And exposures to lead, pesticides and chemicals in personal care products contribute to low sperm counts, infertility and other reproductive issues for men. EWG also underscores the importance of limiting sun exposure, as men face a higher risk of developing melanoma than women.
“While genetics can predetermine certain health outcomes, there are a number of ways men can dramatically reduce their potentially harmful environmental exposures,” Pestano says.
Some tips include:
Investing in a water filter system specifically designed to reduce exposure to lead, arsenic and other drinking water contaminants (see EWG’s “Water Filter Buying Guide” to find the right one);
Avoiding canned foods and plastic containers with the recycling code #7 to limit BPA exposure;
Using personal care products that don’t contain phthalates, parabens or other potential contaminants (see EWG’s “Skin Deep” database that lists toxic chemicals in some 69,000 personal care products);
Choosing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that have the fewest pesticide residues and buying the organic versions of certain types of produce that otherwise rely heavily on chemicals (EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” guide lists apples, grapes, strawberries, celery, peaches, spinach and sweet bell peppers as the worst offenders among others); and
Using proper sun cover and getting regular skin checks with a dermatologist to reduce melanoma risks.

By following these guidelines along with eating a healthy, varied diet and getting regular exercise, men can significantly reduce their health risks and potentially add years to their lives.

Contact: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org/research/mens-health.
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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EarthTalk DriverLess Car
Driverless – or “autonomous” – cars may be commonplace by 2020, some analysts say, and are touted by proponents as  more sustainable than their driven counterparts. But convenience factors could tip the scales the other way and mean more and larger vehicles on the road. Shown is Google’s prototype driverless car, a converted Prius, undergoing testing. (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the so-called “driverless car” that Google and others are working on right now? – April Jackman, Barre, Mass.
Just a decade ago most of us wouldn’t have dreamed we’d live to see driverless cars whisking people around, but things are changing fast and analysts now think they will be common by 2020 and account for the majority of cars on the road by 2040.
And with Google’s recent unveiling of its latest prototype – complete with no pedals or steering wheel – the future is indeed closer than we ever imagined.
Proponents argue that driverless cars – also called “autonomous cars” – are inherently more sustainable than their manned counterparts.
For one, they say, once they are widely available many of us will forego owning our own cars in favor of car-sharing, whereby the autonomous vehicle comes to you, charged and ready to go, as needed.
Thus the result could be far fewer cars on the road than today. According to Steve Gutmann of the Seattle-based sustainability think tank Sightline Institute, such a car-sharing scenario would also obviate the need for many parking spaces.
Today the typical private car spends upwards of 90 percent of its time parked. Once we have more driverless cars, we’ll need far fewer parking spaces, leading to less land being paved and reducing storm water runoff and heat island effects accordingly.
The networked brains of these vehicles will also reduce inefficient routes and decrease overall driving time, leading to better air quality and lower carbon emissions.
Also, the increased safety of driverless vehicles – they obey speed limits, can sense people, bikes and other cars coming toward them, and accelerate and brake much more gradually than human drivers – will mean that the cars can be lighter and require far fewer resources in manufacturing, reducing their overall environmental impact even further.
On the flip side, the advent of driverless cars means that many of us now not able to drive because of age or physical handicaps will be able to use these cars to get around, potentially leading to an increase in the number of cars on the road.
And Chandra Bhat of the Center for Transportation Research at the University of Texas points out that just because a car is driverless doesn’t mean we’ll want it to be smaller, lighter and more fuel efficient.
He fears that driverless cars will engender a return to larger vehicles because people will want “more comfortable space” when they are free to stretch out, relax, read, videochat, text or even nap during their trips.
He adds that driverless cars could lead to more urban sprawl as car commuting becomes more tolerable without the hassle of actually driving.

Bhat also wonders what will become of the public transit systems we’ve invested so heavily in if driverless cars offer the same advantages – using the time en route to do whatever one pleases – with the added benefit of privacy and route/timing flexibility.
Today four U.S. states – Nevada, Florida, California and Michigan – allow driverless cars on their public roads for the purpose of testing; several other states are considering similar allowances.
Likewise, in 2013 the United Kingdom began allowing the testing of driverless cars on its public roadways. Besides Google, several leading automakers and other companies have developed their own prototypes.
Car enthusiasts can expect to see such examples from the likes of Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, Nissan, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, Tesla and others at auto shows over the next few years, and can look forward to getting “behind the wheel” of one within a decade.
Whatever happens, it certainly is going to be quite a ride.
Contacts: Sightline Institute, www.sightline.org; Chandra Bhat, www.ce.utexas.edu/prof/bhat/home.html.
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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EarthTalk Organic Unsustainable
Aside from its other benefits to our health and environment, organic agriculture – which eschews synthetic pesticides and fertilizers – can potentially reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to conventional farming. (Photo by CinCool, courtesy Flickr)

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: Do you agree with the recent claim in the Wall Street Journal that organic agriculture isn’t actually sustainable? – Chuck Romaniello, Pittsburgh, Penn.
Dr. Henry I. Miller’s May 15, 2014 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal has indeed made waves in the organic farming community.
Miller, former director of the Office of Biotechnology at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, argues that conventional farming – which uses synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers and often genetically modified (GM) seed stock to maximize yields – is actually better for the environment, producing more food and using less water compared to organic farming.
“Organic farming might work well for certain local environments on a small scale, but its farms produce far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones,” says Miller. “The low yields of organic agriculture – typically 20 percent to 50 percent less than conventional agriculture – impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption.”
Miller adds that organic methods can cause significant leaking of nitrates from composted manure – the fertilizer of choice for most organic farms – into groundwater, polluting drinking water.
He also cites research showing that large-scale composting generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases and “may also deposit pathogenic bacteria on or in food crops, which has led to more frequent occurrences of food poisoning in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
“If the scale of organic production were significantly increased, says Miller, the lower yields would increase the pressure for the conversion of more land to farming and more water for irrigation, both of which are serious environmental issues.”
He adds that conventional farming’s embrace of GM crops – a no-no to organic farmers – is yet another way we can boost yields and feed more people with less land.
But the Washington, DC-based Organic Center takes issue with Miller’s allegations about nitrates polluting groundwater:
“Most studies that examine nutrient runoff show that organic production methods result in reduced nitrogen losses when compared to conventional crop production,” reports the group.
The Organic Center also disputes Miller’s claims about the organic farming’s carbon footprint, arguing that overall energy usage and greenhouse gas emissions are much less from organic farming than for conventional agriculture.
The group also says that taking into account the greenhouse gas emissions that come from the production (not just the use) of synthetic fertilizer changes the equation entirely.
The group cites a recent study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization which found that organic agriculture can potentially reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent compared to conventional farming.
Also, Miller’s statements about GM crops overlook the ecological problems associated with their use. “For example,” the Organic Center reports, “transgene movement from GM crops to wild, weedy relatives could increase the invasiveness of weeds.”
Also, genetic modification has led to higher pesticide use in agricultural systems and an increase in herbicide-resistant weeds. Some worry this is leading to a vicious cycle whereby farmers use more and more chemical herbicides to battle hardier and hardier weeds.
As the price of organic food continues to drop, more and more people will be able to afford it and the increased demand may well drive the conversion to organic agriculture more than policy or philosophy.
Contacts: Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com; The Organic Center, www.organic-center.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.

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BPA exposure has been linked to a host of human health issues, including cognitive and behavioral development in young children. These concerns have led the European Union, Canada – and more recently the U.S. – to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children. (Photo by Coralie Mercier, courtesy Flickr)
BPA exposure has been linked to a host of human health issues, including cognitive and behavioral development in young children. These concerns have led the European Union, Canada – and more recently the U.S. – to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children. (Photo by Coralie Mercier, courtesy Flickr)

 

By E - The Environmental Magazine
Dear EarthTalk: A recent study showed that Bisphenol A (BPA) was hardly the human health risk researchers once believed it to be. Should I still try to avoid products that may contain it? – Carolyn Danes, Waukesha, Wisc.
Some 93 percent of us carry traces of the synthetic compound Bisphenol A (BPA) in our bloodstreams, so it’s no wonder that public health advocates are concerned about its potential effects.
Developed in the 1950s to strengthen plastics and epoxy resins, BPA is today used in a wide range of products, including many plastic food and drink containers, the lining of most cans, some paper products, and dental sealants.
But with widespread use of BPA has come increased scrutiny regarding its potential impact on human health. When ingested, BPA mimics naturally occurring human hormones and thus can potentially interfere with the body’s endocrine and reproductive workings.
According to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Fund, previous research has linked BPA exposure with increased risk for cardiovascular disease, miscarriages, decreased birth weight at term, breast and prostate cancer, reproductive and sexual dysfunctions, altered immune system activity, metabolic problems and diabetes in adults, and cognitive and behavioral development in young children.
These concerns have led the European Union, Canada – and more recently the U.S. – to ban the use of BPA in baby bottles and other items geared toward babies and children.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that typical low-level BPA exposure does not pose any health risk. A February 2014 study by FDA researchers found that low doses of the compound did not affect the health of rats over a 90-day study period.
While study rats exposed to higher doses of BPA had lower body weights, abnormal female reproductive development and altered hormone levels, there were no such effects in rats exposed to lower doses more akin to what humans experience.
But critics point out some flaws in that study which call its conclusions into question. For one, a control group of rats that was supposed to remain unexposed to BPA somehow had levels of the compound in their blood equivalent to the lowest-dose study population.
FDA researchers maintain that this contamination of the control group did not affect their results because neither group of rats showed any effects given their low-dose exposure. Another issue is that the researchers did not look at neurological effects such as changes in learning, memory and behavior.
“What needs to follow is whether these exposures are causing neurobehavioral changes,” Harvard epidemiologist Joe Braun told Environmental Health News, adding that previous research has shown that estrogen receptors in the brains of rats were triggered by low doses of BPA. “Hopefully [the FDA] will address that down the road.”
More research is underway still. The February 2014 FDA study is part of an ongoing two-year assessment of the toxicity of BPA. Dozens of university studies are also in progress to shed more light on just how risky our use of BPA may be.
Consumers should continue to take precautions to limit their intake of BPA by avoiding polycarbonate plastic food and drink containers and metal cans, and by refraining from putting plastic items in the microwave – a process that can expedite the leaching of BPA into food.
Contacts: Breast Cancer Fund, www.breastcancerfund.org; U.S. Food & Drug Administration, www.fda.gov; Environmental Health News, www.environmentalhealthnews.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.

Politics

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By Nusayba Hammad, Communications Director, US Campaign for Palestinian Rights (nusayba@uscpr.org) WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an act unprecedented in recent history, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand...
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