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by The Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Years ago I read that children should be kept at least two feet from the television because of harmful electronic emissions. Is this still relevant? Is there a difference regarding this between older and new flat-screen models? -- Horst E. Mehring, Oconomowoc, WI

Luckily for many of us and our kids, sitting “too” close to the TV isn’t known to cause any human health issues. This myth prevails because back in the 1960s General Electric sold some new-fangled color TV sets that emitted excessive amounts of radiation—as much as 100,000 times more than federal health officials considered safe. GE quickly recalled and repaired the faulty TVs, but the stigma lingers to this day.

But even though electronic emissions aren’t an issue with TVs made any time after 1968 (including today’s LCD and plasma flat screens), what about causing harm to one’s vision? Dr. Lee Duffner of the American Academy of Ophthalmology isn’t concerned, maintaining that watching television screens—close-up or otherwise—“won’t cause any physical damage to your eyes.” He adds, however, that a lot of TV watching can surely cause eye strain and fatigue, particularly for those sitting very close and/or watching from odd angles. But there is an easy cure for eye strain and fatigue: turning off the TV and getting some rest. With a good night’s sleep, tired eyes should quickly return to normal.

Debra Ronca, a contributor to the How Stuff Works website, argues that some parents might be putting the cart before the horse in blaming close-up TV watching for their child’s vision issues. “Sitting close to the television may not make a child nearsighted, but a child may sit close to the television because he or she is nearsighted and undiagnosed,” she reports. “If your child habitually sits too close to the television for comfort, get his or her eyes tested.”

Of course, excessive TV viewing by kids can cause health problems indirectly. According to the Nemours Foundation’s KidsHealth website, children who consistently watch TV more than four hours a day are more likely to be overweight, which in and of itself can bring about health problems later. Also, kids who watch a lot of TV are more likely to copy bad behavior they see on-screen and tend to “fear that the world is scary and that something bad will happen to them.” Nemours also finds that TV characters often depict risky behaviors (like smoking and drinking) and also tend to reinforce gender-role and racial stereotypes.

There has also been much debate in recent years on the effects of TV viewing on infants. A 2007 Seattle Children’s Research Institute study found that for every hour per day infants spent watching baby DVDs and videos they learned six to eight fewer new vocabulary words than babies who never watched the videos. But a 2009 study by the Center on Media & Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston found no negative cognitive or other impacts whatsoever on those infants exposed to more television than less.

While it may be inevitable that your kids will watch TV, the key, experts say, is moderation. Limit kids’ exposure to screens of any kind, and monitor what they are allowed to watch. As KidsHealth points out, parents should teach their kids that the TV is “for occasional entertainment, not for constant escapism.”

CONTACTS: American Academy of Ophthalmology, www.aao.org; How Stuff Works, www.howstuffworks.com; KidsHealth, www.kidshealth.org; Seattle Children's Research Institute, research.seattlechildrens.org; Center on Media & Child Health, www.cmch.tv.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What’s better for the local ecology, sewers or septic tanks? -- T.H., Darien, CT

You probably won’t have much choice as to whether that home you’re thinking of buying is on sewer or septic. Most likely it’s a done deal, unless the neighborhood is presently all on septic but is considering a petition to the town to switch to sewers (in which case you can usually agree to hook up or stay put).

There are pros and cons to each in regard to the environment. Both types of systems are designed to handle and treat so-called “blackwater” (wastewater from toilets) and “graywater” coming from our sinks, showers, dishwashers and laundry machines. On-site septic and community-wide sewer systems work in similar ways, utilizing micro-organisms to filter out bacteria, viruses and other disease-causing pathogens before releasing the cleansed water back into the environment.

In general, most people prefer to be on a shared sewer system if they have a choice, as the burden of keeping the system running smoothly falls on the local government, which presumably has the money and expertise to ensure that wastewater is properly treated across the region. Also, in a shared sewer system, wastewater is whisked away to a centralized treatment facility; anyone who has ever experienced a septic system backup on their property can appreciate what a benefit off-site wastewater treatment can be.

Another advantage to a shared sewer is that such systems are usually built to withstand heavy loads and can better accommodate periods of heavy precipitation or storm surges that might overwhelm smaller, poorly conceived or maintained home-based septic tanks, which are by virtue of their size and the laws of physics more prone to overflow and send contaminants into nearby surface and ground waters.

Septic systems have their proponents, though, who say that a professionally designed, installed and maintained system should hold up in even the biggest of storms. The University of Minnesota Extension (UMNE), which publishes the useful online “Septic System Owner’s Guide,” says vigilance is key: “The only way to guarantee effective treatment is to have a trained professional ensure adequate unsaturated and suitable soil exists below the soil treatment area to allow for complete wastewater treatment.”

When homeowners don’t take care of their septic systems properly, though, they can become a nuisance for the surrounding ecosystem. Wastewater that is not properly treated can contaminate surface and groundwater and threaten public health. According to UMNE, improperly treated sewage can be the culprit behind the spread of hepatitis, dysentery and other diseases resulting from pathogens in drinking water, while also compromising the purity of lakes and streams. Additionally, flies and mosquitoes that are attracted to and breed in wet areas where sewage reaches the surface can also spread disease.

Improperly treated sewage can also lead to increased nitrates in local water supplies, which is dangerous for infants, pregnant women and those with already compromised immune systems. In and around lakes and streams, this influx in nitrates can lead to plant growth out of whack with the local ecosystem’s ability to handle it, resulting in oxygen-free “dead zones” devoid of marine and riparian life altogether.

CONTACT: Septic System Owner’s Guide, www.extension.umn.edu/distribution/naturalresources/dd6583.html.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any conservation efforts focused on animal species endemic to islands likely to be submerged by rising sea levels? -- H. Wyeth, Anahola, HI

Islands are indeed likely to be the areas hardest hit by our warming climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of leading climate scientists from around the world convened by the United Nations to assess the ongoing risk of global warming, predicts a global average sea level rise of between 3.5 and 34.6 inches over the next century. And the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a coalition of 42 small island and low-lying coastal countries that have banded together to lobby United Nations policymakers, reports that warming-induced sea level rises could threaten the very existence of some island nations including the Maldives, Kiribati and parts of the Bahamas.

Those low-lying nations that do manage to hang onto some land will contend with not only continuously rising seas and stronger more frequent storms, but also declines in the productivity of their agriculture and fisheries. Salt water intrusion will limit the amount of freshwater available for crops and in some cases undermine the integrity of the soil itself. And as coral reefs die off, the abundant marine life that once congregated around them will disappear.

As for wildlife, it’s unclear just how much certain endemic species will be affected by rising sea levels and other environmental hazards exacerbated by global warming. Clearly the biggest threat is habitat loss: Land forms that once sustained certain animals may no longer be above water or otherwise suitable for some species. Those fortunate enough to be on big continents may be able to move away from shore to neighboring areas that can provide the resources needed for survival. But animals on islands may be hard pressed to find places better to go to where they can keep on keeping on.

The IPCC lists a few examples among thousands of endemic island dwellers facing likely extinction unless we can get a handle on greenhouse gas emissions in short order: the Tuamotu sandpiper of Tuamotu Island, the Bristle-thighed Curlew of French Polynesia, the Manus fantail of Papua New Guinea, the lorikeet and rail of New Caledonia, the moorhen and Savai’i of Samoa, the Santo Mountain starling on Espiritu Santo, penguins in the Galapagos, petrels in Bermuda and seabird colonies from the Kerguelen, Crozet and outer Hawaiian islands, among others. The IPCC adds that endemic flora may fare even worse, which will in turn drive more animal extinctions.

What can be done to stem this rising tide of endemic species loss? According to the IPCC, the establishment of terrestrial, marine or coastal reserves has been found to be a “useful management option.” Results from existing model reserves on islands across the Caribbean (including Dominica, Bonaire, the Grenadines and St. Lucia) have shown promise. Groups including Conservation International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Nature Conservancy and others, are working to create more such reserves in other biodiversity hotspots, including many non-threatened islands around the globe.

CONTACTS: IPCC, www.ipcc.ch; AOSIS, www.sidsnet.org/aosis; Conservation International, www.conservation.org; Wildlife Conservation Society, www.wcs.org; Nature Conservancy, www.nature.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I recently got my car detailed at a local place and then gasped at the chemical fumes when I got inside. Are there green detailers out there, or products that I could use myself to keep my vehicle clean and my family out of harm’s way? -- David Berkowitz, Newton, MA

Traditionally, auto detailing has employed a range of not-so-green-friendly products such as ammonia, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nonphenolethoxolates (NPEs), abrasive detergents, and chemical-based leather, vinyl, fabric and carpet treatments. Inside the car, they can off-gas harsh airborne pollutants; when washed down storm drains they can wreak havoc on public water supplies.

Unfortunately, while environmental awareness is beginning to crop up among auto detailing services (online discussion boards are full of posts from professional detailers sharing their tips for greener, more effective products and formulations), finding a green detailing service isn’t very easy just yet, so doing it yourself might be the only way to ensure that the environment and your health are spared chemical insult. There are green detailing products and kits out there, easily found through an Internet search.

Two leading suppliers are Laura Klein’s Green Cleaning, and Mean Green. These companies, among others, specialize in degreasers, dashboard dressings, tire cleaners, spot removers and other products made with natural, biodegradable water- and plant-based substances (including coconut, palm, citrus, corn and soy), combined and concentrated to be as effective as or better than their chemical-laden counterparts.

Another way to be green and clean at the same time is to choose wash and wax products that don’t contain harsh chemical surfactants—and as such don’t require water-wasting, polluting rinses. No-Wet Waterless Concepts and Optimum Polymer Technologies are two leading manufacturers for such goods.

Do-it-yourselfers should be careful not to dump wastewater into nearby storm drains not intended to carry toxic run-off. Most reputable car wash businesses go to great lengths to make sure the water, soaps, oils and other dirt from your car doesn’t end up polluting groundwater, rivers and streams, and so should you. If you clean your car in your own driveway or garage, try to collect any run-off and dispose of it into a drain or toilet that will send it through the sewage treatment system, not into the curbside storm run-off drain that may well lead directly to a local water body or shoreline.

While finding a green detailer may not be easy, you can start by asking those operators in your region if they currently use environmentally-friendly products and/or processes. If not, ask them if they would be amenable to greening up their operations for the sake of attracting customers like you.

Some detailers that have already taken the green plunge include: Ecodetail Services of Sacramento, CA; Car Wash Concepts of Aliso Viejo, CA; Gia’s Detailing of Long Island, NY; Scott’s Mobile Auto Detailing of Tarrant County, TX; and Elite Detailing Service Inc. of Plainfield, IL. These providers share an interest in environmental protection, use minimal amounts of water and other resources, and dispose of run-off according to the stringent standards set forth under the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts.

CONTACTS: Laura Klein’s, www.laurakleinsgreencleaning.com; Mean Green, www.meangreen.com; No-Wet Waterless, www.nowet.com; Optimum Polymer Technologies, www.optimumcarcare.com.

Dear EarthTalk: How does growing human population, and its resultant landscape changes, affect the flight paths of migratory birds that might carry diseases? -- Ronnie Washines, Toppenish, WA

As human population numbers grow, oceans of people seem to spread out into every conceivable environment—even the forests and estuaries used for eons by migratory birds as nutrient-rich stopovers on their longer annual journeys between feeding areas and birthing grounds.

Of course, more human development means fewer habitats suitable for such birds of passage (and other wildlife) as we “pave paradise…” and put up parking lots. But tired and hungry birds may not have the wherewithal or instinctual coding to seek out alternative resting areas, so they make do with habitat crowded and compromised by human incursion. Close proximity to avian life hasn’t presented too big of a problem for people in the past, but new concerns about the spread of bird flu (the H5N1 virus) via infected migratory birds (which presumably infect local populations of domestic birds) does have some scientists worried that persistent human expansion could indirectly lead to a disease pandemic of global proportions.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the role of migratory birds in spreading bird flu is not well understood, but we do know that wild waterfowl are a “natural reservoir” of mostly harmless H5 and H7 influenza A viruses. But recent research suggests that these viruses may be mutating into more “pathogenic” (disease producing) forms, such as H5N1 that can “jump the species barrier” and infect people and other animals. “Recent events make it likely that some migratory birds are now directly spreading the H5N1 virus in its highly pathogenic form,” reports WHO, adding that further spread to new areas is expected. It is unlikely that the bird flu making headlines a few years ago (the H5N1 strain), could lead to a human pandemic. The vast majority who got sick had direct contact with infected birds.

It could be that the very sprawl that increases our chances of catching bird flu—by bringing us and our poultry farms into closer contact with disease-bearing migratory birds—will protect us in the end. Humans have greatly altered the landscape for agricultural and industrial purposes and in creating urban settlements, points out wildlife biologist Kevin Kenow of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center. As such, it contains less of the kinds of habitat migrating birds prefer—wetlands, forests and prairies—and more of what adversely affects them, such as human development, urban and agricultural runoff, and other forms of habitat degradation. “Many migratory birds that once flourished are now absent in altered or degraded areas," he says.

Regardless of the risk, scientists have yet to develop a vaccine to protect against H5N1 in humans, but they are working on it. Those who remain concerned should always cook poultry to a temperature of at least 158 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes (this heat kills the virus if it is present) and wash hands with soap and warm water frequently (always a good idea regardless). And look both ways before crossing the street: At present, at least, your chances of getting hit by a car are far greater than your chances of contracting bird flu.

CONTACTS: World Health Organization, www.who.int; U.S. Geological Survey’s Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, www.umesc.usgs.gov.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook.


From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Since nitrogen oxide compounds are components of smog and are common water pollutants, does nitrogen-enriched gasoline create additional pollution?

-- Rick Oestrike, Poughkeepsie, NY

It might seem like adding nitrogen to gasoline is all the rage among oil companies today, but the idea has been around for years. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) requires that automotive fuels sold in the U.S. contain detergents to help scrub away pollution before it goes out the vehicle’s tailpipe. Some manufacturers have found that adding nitrogen to the detergent helps keep an engine cleaner by reducing the carbon build-up in the gas tank that can in turn “gunk” up the engine and lower performance.

The nitrogen itself also has a direct cleaning effect, breaking down carbon deposits that can harden on an engine’s moving parts. “If too much collects, this gunk can negatively affect engine performance, causing your car to burn more oil, overheat and burn gasoline less efficiently,” reports John Fuller on the How Stuff Works website. Valves inside an engine are designed to let in a specific amount of air and fuel, he adds; when that process is slowed by carbon build-up, a car won’t perform up to its potential.

But while nitrogen-enriched gasoline may provide a slight bump in engine performance, some worry about adding to cars’ already substantial pollution load, especially nitrogen oxide (NOx), which contributes to smog, acid rain and other environmental problems. André L. Boehman, a Penn State University engineering and fuel science professor, says that the addition of more nitrogen to the fuel mix “generally will increase NOx emissions.” Boehman would like to see more research done so we can know for sure if and how much additional NOx pollution is caused by the use of nitrogen-enriched gasoline.

For its part, Shell Oil, which last spring launched its own form of nitrogen-enriched gasoline now for sale at all of its U.S. filling stations (it is mixed into all three grades of gasoline the company sells), denies that the additional nitrogen has any substantive impact on pollution levels. “Most nitrogen in vehicular NOx emissions does not come from gasoline,” the company told The New York Times. “The nitrogen is primarily from the incoming air that mixes with gasoline inside an engine. NOx is produced when the nitrogen from the air reacts with oxygen under high engine temperature and pressure conditions.”

Professor Boehman concedes that “the detergent additive may have such beneficial effects on engine operation, fuel system performance and other related features of engine system operation that they outweigh the adverse effect” of increased NOx emissions. “For instance, if improved detergency helps to increase fuel efficiency so that you burn less fuel, you may slightly increase the NOx emissions rate per gram of fuel burned, but end up with lower NOx because you burned fewer grams of fuel.”

That said, it is probably a good idea to avoid putting nitrogen in your fuel unless you’re sure the gains will outweigh the detriments. And until researchers know more, drivers might focus instead on minimizing their own vehicles’ overall gasoline consumption and fuel efficiency—and on substituting other cleaner forms of transportation (walking, biking, mass transit) whenever possible.

CONTACTS: EPA Fuels and Fuel Additives, www.epa.gov/OMS/fuels.htm; How Stuff Works, www.howstuffworks.com; Shell, www.shell.us.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the primary environmental concerns in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Haiti? -- Frank Dover, Portland, OR

As would be the case after any natural disaster, water-borne illness could run rampant and chemicals and oil could leak out of damaged storage facilities as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ripped apart Haiti on January 12. Surprisingly, no large industrial spills have been found during initial post-quake rescue efforts, but of course the focus has been on saving human lives and restoring civil order.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the biggest issue is the building waste; some 40 to 50 percent of the buildings fell in Port-au-Prince and nearby towns. “Thousands of buildings suddenly become debris and this overwhelms the capacity of waste management,” says UNEP’s Muralee Thummarukudy, who is directing efforts to collect the waste for use in reconstruction projects.

Even before the quake Haiti had major environmental problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s reduced Haiti’s forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. “If you have forest cover, when heavy rain takes place it doesn’t erode the land,” UNEP’s Asif Zaidi reports. “It doesn’t result in flash floods.” He adds that, due to its lack of forest cover, Haiti suffers much more during hurricanes than does the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Compounding these ecological insults is Haiti’s fast growing population, now 9.7 million and growing by 2.5 percent per year. This has pushed millions of Haitians into marginal areas like floodplains and on land that could otherwise be used profitably. “Most fertile land areas are often used for slums, while hillsides and steep landscapes are used for agriculture,” reports USAID’s Beth Cypser. The resulting sanitation problems have stepped up cases of dysentery, malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis among Haiti’s poverty-stricken population. Trash-filled beaches, smelly waterways, swarms of dead fish and tons of floating debris stand testament to Haiti’s water pollution problems—now exacerbated by the earthquake.

“We need to…create mechanisms that reinforce better use of natural resources," says UNEP’s Zaidi. Prior to the quake, UNEP had committed to a two-year project to bolster to restore Haiti’s forests, coral reefs and other natural systems compromised by the island’s economic problems. Providing access to propane to encourage a shift from charcoal-burning stoves is an immediate goal. Longer term, UNEP hopes the program will help kick-start reforestation efforts and investments in renewable energy infrastructure there.

Perhaps the silver lining of the earthquake in Haiti is the fact that millions of people around the world now know about the plight of the country’s people and environment, and donations have started to pour in. Anyone interested in helping relief efforts in Haiti can send a text message triggering a small donation to the American Red Cross (text “HAITI” to 90999 and $10 will be donated and added to your next phone bill). Those concerned about clean water specifically should donate to World Water Relief, a non-profit focusing on the installation of water filtration systems in Haiti and other distressed areas of the world.

CONTACTS: USAID, www.usaid.gov; UNEP, www.unep.org; American Red Cross, www.redcross.org; World Water Relief, www.worldwaterrelief.org.

P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php. EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalkbook

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