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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: I'm wondering what President Trump's perspective is on our environment? He doesn't seem to be doing much about preserving it let alone healing it? --Sheila Kaye, via e-mail

From the get-go, Donald Trump has been no friend to the environment, and he has used the highest office in the land to gut environmental protections and conservation initiatives—and open up natural resources to the highest bidders—at every opportunity. That the public hasn’t heard much about this is most likely due to the fact that Donald Trump has given the media so much else to worry about, leaving environmental coverage more of an afterthought in the constantly evolving “breaking news” cycle.

Even before he took office in 2016, Trump had declared global warming a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to hurt our economy, and vowed to overturn Obama’s huge win to curb U.S. emissions, the Clean Power Plan. Trump also threatened to pull the U.S. out of the landmark (but voluntary) Paris climate accord. When he became President, he made good on those promises, horrific as that may have been to environmentalists who had worked a lifetime to achieve the goals thrown asunder.

But Trump wasn’t done there. He then got busy loosening regulations on everything from toxic air pollution to methane flares to fuel economy standards to wildlife protections. Criminal prosecutions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are at a 30-year low thanks to lack of inspiration from above.

Trump, once and always a developer lest we forget, has also worked to weaken the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act as well as to downsize two recently designated national monuments (Bear’s Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante). He also went against the better judgement of his joint chiefs in December 2017 and took climate change off of the list of national security threats, despite that fact that extreme weather events pose a bigger risk to the American people than terrorism.

More recently, under the radar compared to higher-profile scandals, the Trump administration finalized rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that speeds up permitting for federal projects like pipelines, highways and power plants. Long gone are the onerous and time-consuming permitting procedures that used to dog unscrupulous developers and protect key wildlife habitat.

And in July 2020, the Trump administration started moving forward quietly with petroleum exploration in the sacrosanct Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which environmentalists have been trying to protect from drilling since it was established by Jimmy Carter executive order in 1980.

“All told, the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks could significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality each year,” said The New York Times. Simply put, if you care about clean air and water and public health in general (which is what environmentalism is mostly about), Trump is not your man.


CONTACTS: “What is the Trump administration’s track record on the environment?” brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/what-is-the-trump-administrations-track-record-on-the-environment/; “15 ways the Trump administration has changed environmental policies,” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/02/15-ways-trump-administration-impacted-environment/; “The Trump Administration Is Reversing 100 Environmental Rules,” nytimes.com/interactive/2020/climate/trump-environment-rollbacks.html

Dear EarthTalk: If we lived in underground buildings (and cities), would it be better for the environment overall? -- Marty M., Hoboken, NJ

It’s certainly true that moving more of our infrastructure, let alone work and live space, underground would relieve some of the pressure that our conventional above-ground development and habitation puts on the environment. While building below the surface presents its own set of challenges, underground spaces are less susceptible to external influences and their overall impact (including carbon emissions) tends to be less than the equivalent amount of space above ground. Indeed, given the environmental problems we’re experiencing, moving more below the surface does indeed have the potential to make things safer, healthier and more sustainable for all of us.

In and of themselves, underground buildings have a built-in advantage in regard to energy usage for heating/cooling, given their typically more constant temperature, humidity, heat insulation, shading and airtightness. Furthermore, underground buildings are much less affected by wind, rain, frost, snow, sun radiation or other external conditions. At the same time, the temperature fluctuation range of underground space is small, especially as compared to the “hot-and-cold load” in above-ground buildings. In short, underground buildings use only a fraction of the energy required by conventional buildings to keep the interior environment comfortable, with most of the energy consumption concentrated instead on less power-intensive lighting and ventilation systems.

Beyond being better for the planet in some ways as compared to above-ground buildings, just having some underground buildings in the mix—even below regular cities—could yield vast benefits. “Underground solutions can solve or help improve multiple of the problems that urban developments face: traffic congestion; environmental problems; lack of (green) space; need for protection against disasters; lack of infrastructure for food, energy, water and sanitation,” reports Dutch researcher Wout Broere.

“Placement of infrastructure and other facilities underground presents an opportunity for realizing new functions in urban areas without destroying heritages or negatively impacting the surface environment, and at the same time brings opportunities for long-term improvements in the environmental impact of cities and more efficient use of space and resources,” adds Broere.

Many cities around the world—from Helsinki to Moscow to Montreal to Beijing—are developing underground space to alleviate population and environmental pressures. Helsinki, for instance, has adopted a strategic ‘Underground City Plan’ which calls for the construction of some 200 more underground buildings there to accompany the city’s existing subterranean swimming complex, shopping area, and hockey rink.

Meanwhile, Russian developers are converting a defunct 550-meter-deep mine shaft in Eastern Siberia into an eco-friendly underground city under a huge glass dome. The ambitious project—replete with vertical farms, forests and recreation areas in addition to climate controlled underground offices and housing—promises to eventually accommodate 100,000 residents.

While many of us shudder at the thought of living a subterranean lifestyle, at least making the option available to those who choose it willingly could be a big win for the environment.

CONTACTS: “Urban Underground Space: Solving The Problems of Today’s Cities,” sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0886779815302923#!; “Future Cities Live Underground—And That’s Not a Pile of Schist,” thenatureofcities.com/2017/01/22/future-cities-live-underground-thats-not-pile-schist/; “Study on the Energy-Saving Design of Underground Building,” scientific.net/AMR.1065-1069.2205.

Dear EarthTalk: Elon Musk plans to put thousands of new satellites into space to blanket Earth with high speed Internet. What are the environmental implications of this? -- M. C., Atlanta. GA

Putting satellites up into the ionosphere—the layer of our atmosphere extending from 50-600 miles above the surface where a high concentration of ions and free electrons facilitate the reflection of radio waves—isn’t anything new. The Soviets beat us to the punch when they launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, but these days there are over 9,000 satellites overhead, the majority from U.S. companies and government agencies. But with Elon Musk’s SpaceX poised to launch tens of thousands of new ones in the next few years, many people wonder whether putting all this technology overhead is such a good idea.

One concern is that all this hardware eventually breaks down and shed parts. Peter Greenstreet of the Institute of Physics reports that this so-called “space junk” orbits at some 7.5 kilometers per second—so fast that even the tiniest pieces create a potential hazard for space stations and other man-made or natural objects making the same rounds. Greenstreet adds that space junk falling to Earth’s surface is less of a concern, given that most of it breaks down into tiny pieces due to the heat and friction encountered upon entry to our atmosphere and thus stands little to no chance of hurting any people or property below.

Another environmental issue with satellite proliferation is so-called “sky pollution.” By reflecting the light of the sun, satellites cause streaks of light across the sky where astronomers would prefer darkness for peering into the heavens and where everyday people will be robbed of their own views of a dark sky.

But despite these drawbacks, there are plenty of good reasons to like satellites if you care about the environment. “From the International Space Station (ISS) to hundreds of other observational satellites, remote sensing allows for climate and environmental monitoring,” reports Daisy Gill on Earth.org. “These imaging satellites are an incredible source of data for climate change research, enabling us to see the global changes on the planet that are happening more frequently, and with data freely available for anyone to view and use.” Examples include tracking changing oceanic temperatures, currents and sea level.

Satellites are also key to understanding global and local precipitation and flooding patterns, how wildfires start and spread, the distribution of wildlife populations, and other indicators of environmental health. Satellites are also useful as early warning systems for natural disasters and extreme weather events.

If we can figure out ways to clean up space junk, we can use satellites with less guilt. NASA’s e.DeOrbit project is focusing on seeking out and removing satellite debris in the upper reaches of the ionosphere. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency is hard at work on its own “capture mechanisms” to pick up space debris such as nets, harpoons robotic arms and tentacles. Only time will tell if these technologies can help restore the heavens above—or at least the ionosphere—to a more pristine state.

CONTACTS: “Satellites: What Harm Can They Do?” iop.org/activity/groups/subject/env/prize/winners/file_65756.pdf; “Outside Looking In: Satellites in the Climate Crisis,” earth.org/outside-looking-in-satellites-in-the-climate-crisis; “Space junk and the environment: It’s a very dark picture indeed,” theconversation.com/space-junk-and-the-environment-its-a-very-dark-picture-indeed-2187.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that being around a waterfall makes you feel good? – S.B., Lewiston, ME

The notion of waterfalls making you happy is often viewed as an “old wives’ tale,” but there may be some truth to it given the so-called “negative ions” pervasive in such environments. The collision of water molecules with each other causes water to be positively charged and surrounding air to be negatively charged. According to Pierce Howard, Ph.D., author of The Owner's Manual for the Brain: Everyday Applications from Mind-Brain Research, it makes sense that waterfalls can make you feel good, given that negative ions hitting our bloodstream can produce biochemical reactions linked to alleviating depression, relieving stress and boosting energy.

“High concentrations of negative ions are essential for high energy and positive mood,” he reports. “Negative ions suppress serotonin levels in much the same way that natural sunlight suppresses melatonin. Hence the invigorating effect of fresh air and sunshine and the correspondingly depressed feelings associated with being closed in and dark.”

“The atmosphere we breathe normally is full of positive and negative ions,” he adds. “Air-conditioning, lack of ventilation, and long dry spells remove negative ions...the best ratios of negative to positive ions are associated with waterfalls and the time before, during and after storms,” says Howard. “The worst are found in windowless rooms and closed, moving vehicles.”

Our love of waterfalls only underscores that people thrive when they are exposed to nature on a regular basis. A 2013 study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology definitively linked exposure to nature directly with improved mental health, comparing the mental health of those who moved from city landscapes to greener, more natural settings with those who relocated in the reverse direction. Researchers found that those who relocated to settings with a higher exposure to nature were noticeably happier during the three-year study period. “[E]nvironmental policies to increase urban green space may have sustainable public health benefits," they concluded.

In another recent study, researchers sampled the effects of nature on 537 University of Rochester students in both real and imagined situations, and found that individuals who spent time outdoors—or even just imagined themselves in nature—consistently experienced higher energy levels and increased feelings of happiness. Study participants who spent just 20 minutes outdoors a day experienced significant increases in energy levels as well as noticeable mood boosts. Even indoor plants played a role in helping study participants feel more energized.

Another way to look at it would be to consider our sedentary, indoor lifestyle as a drain on our energy reserves and taxing to our mood and general sense of well-being. In the landmark 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to explain how our lack of time outdoors has led to behavioral problems in kids and adults alike. Louv’s prescription? Spend more time outdoors (away from screens) interacting with nature and each other.

In case you needed another reason to get off the couch and out into the woods on a waterfall hike, now you have it. You’ll be sharper. You’ll be more productive. You’ll be invigorated. And you’ll be happier.

CONTACTS: The Owner's Manual for the Brain, amzn.to/3gAlLTm; Last Child in the Woods, amzn.to/3kcRb4b; “Green spaces deliver lasting mental health benefits,” medicalxpress.com/news/2014-01-green-spaces-mental-health-benefits.html.

 

Dear EarthTalk: Is DEET natural and is it safe to use topically as a mosquito repellent? And which formulations and concentrations are advised? -- M. Frey, Milwaukee, WI

DEET (short for “diethyltoluamide”) is a synthetic compound invented by the U.S. Army in 1946 that can be applied topically to repel mosquitos, ticks, fleas, chiggers, leeches and other biting insects. Unlike other repellents which actually deter bugs with smells they don’t like—or even kill them on contact—DEET just makes it harder for pests to smell us so they are more likely to leave us alone.

DEET has been available to the general public since the Army “released” it in 1957, and today it remains most people’s repellent of choice, with 90 percent market penetration in the U.S. An estimated one-third of Americans use DEET to protect them from not only mosquito bites but also mosquito-borne illnesses like Eastern Equine Encephalitis, West Nile Virus, the Zika virus and malaria, not to mention tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

DEET is not only effective, it’s also convenient; it is sold in a variety of formulations (liquid, lotion, spray, towelette) ranging in strength from 5-99 percent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers DEET safe to use topically, and has approved 30 companies to sell some 120 different DEET-based repellents online and in store shelves across the U.S. And with 90 percent market penetration for insect repellents, DEET seems to be here to stay.

That said, many of us are still concerned about the safety of DEET for our health and the environment. According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), exposure to high concentrations of DEET can irritate the eyes and in very rare cases impair the nervous system, with symptoms including seizures, tremors and slurred speech. But despite these risks, EWG acknowledges that DEET is still probably the safest option for preventing insect-borne diseases.

If you want to use DEET, keep in mind that pediatricians generally recommend not using it on babies up to two months old, but otherwise sticking to concentrations of 10-30 percent for infants and children. The stronger the concentration of the DEET you apply, the longer lasting protection you’ll get from mosquitoes. Consumer Reports found that 99 percent of DEET formulations gave up to 12 hours of protection while lower concentrations (20-34 percent) lasted 3-6 hours.

If you want to avoid DEET altogether, there are several effective alternatives available, including Picaridin and PMD (AKA Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus). Meanwhile, several botanical oils (castor oil, cedar oil, citronella oil, clove oil, geraniol oil, lemongrass oil, peppermint oil, rosemary oil, soybean oil) are known for repelling insects, but EWG warns most of these are not very effective, won’t last long and could trigger allergic reactions in the user on their own.

To decide what’s best for you and your family given where you live and the risks for insect-borne diseases there, check out the EPA’s “Find the Repellent that is Right for You” search tool which bases its recommendations on your inputs regarding what you are trying to battle, how long you will be outside and potentially exposed, active ingredient preference, and even preferred brand name.

CONTACTS: EPA’s “Find the Repellent that is Right for You,” epa.gov/insect-repellents/find-repellent-right-you; EWG’s Guide to Bug Repellents, ewg.org/research/ewgs-guide-bug-repellents; “Is DEET Bad for You (and Your Kids)?” health.clevelandclinic.org/is-deet-bad-for-you-and-your-kids/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .

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Sue Miller Art
Ellie Pechet
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