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EarthTalk® - Q & A on Environmental Issues

by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial

Dear EarthTalk
: What is happening to update and reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which I understand is considerably outdated and actually permits the use of thousands of chemicals that have never been adequately tested for safety? -- Henry Huse, Norwalk, CT

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental research and advocacy organization, upwards of 80,000 chemicals commonly used in the United States have never been fully assessed for toxic impacts on human health and the environment. “Under the current law, it is almost impossible for the EPA [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] to take regulatory action against dangerous chemicals, even those that are known to cause cancer or other serious health effects,” reports the group.

1976’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was intended to protect people and the environment from exposure to dangerous chemicals. But the standards at that time dictated that only those chemicals deemed an “unreasonable risk” were subject to testing and regulation. When the law went into effect, some 62,000 chemicals escaped testing and most have remained on the market ever since. In the interim, however, we have learned that many of them have been linked to hormonal, reproductive and immune problems, cancer, and a plethora of environmental problems.

And since 1976, an additional 22,000 chemicals have been introduced without any testing for public or environmental safety. Some of the potentially worst offenders can be found in cleaning and personal care products, furniture, building materials, electronics, food and drink containers, and even kids’ toys.

“The law is widely considered to be a failure and, most recently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s own Inspector General found it inadequate to ensure that new chemicals are safe,” reports NRDC, which is not the only group concerned about beefing up TSCA. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition includes more than 200 nonprofits—including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the Environmental Defense Fund and the Lung Cancer Alliance, among many others—representing a collective membership of more than 11 million individual parents, health professionals, advocates for people with learning and developmental disabilities, reproductive health advocates, environmentalists and businesspersons from across the country.

By banding together, coalition leaders hope to convince Congress to fix the problem by finally updating TSCA and creating the “foundation for a sound and comprehensive chemicals policy that protects public health and the environment, while restoring the luster of safety to U.S. goods in the world market.”

Specifically, the coalition is lobbying Congress to revamp TSCA so that the most dangerous chemicals are phased out or banned outright and that others are tested and regulated accordingly, all the while ensuring the public’s right-to-know about the safety and use of chemicals in everyday products. Also, the coalition is calling for federal funding to expand research into greener alternative chemicals to replace those with known health hazards.

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org, EPA Summary of TSCA, www.epa.gov/lawsregs/laws/tsca.html; Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families Coalition, www.saferchemicals.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I saw a TV ad for toilet paper with no cardboard core to save paper. I understand that green groups recently struck a deal with Kimberly-Clark to protect eastern U.S. forests from decimation for, among other things, toilet paper. Can you tell me if any efforts are underway to protect Canada's boreal forest, also long used for making tissue paper? -- K. Douglas, Winthrop, ME

In August 2009, Kimberly-Clark, the paper giant behind the Kleenex, Cottonelle and Scott brands and the largest manufacturer of tissue products in the world, gave in to pressure from Greenpeace and other environmental groups to clean up its act in regard to how it sources its wood fiber and how much recycled content it includes in its products. After various forms of public haranguing from Greenpeace, the company committed to sourcing 40 percent of its North American tissue fiber—some 600,000 tons yearly—from recycled sources or from forests certified as sustainable by the nonprofit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Also, by the end of 2011 Kimberly-Clark will stop buying non-FSC-certified wood fiber from Canada’s vast but fast-shrinking boreal forest—the largest old growth forest on the continent.

One outgrowth of this landmark agreement is Kimberly-Clark’s launch of Scott Naturals Tube-Free toilet paper which, to reduce waste is wound in such a way that it doesn’t need cardboard tubes. The company estimates that the 17 billion toilet paper tubes produced yearly in the
U.S. account for some 160 million pounds of trash—most of us discard instead of recycle them. By eliminating the tubes, the company hopes to both save cardboard and allow customers to use every last piece of toilet paper, since the last one won’t have any glue on it to stick to the roll. The tube-free TP is being sold initially at Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the Northeastern U.S. and will be launched nationally and beyond if it catches on with consumers.

Kimberly-Clark’s green awakening will no doubt benefit the tree farms and forests of the Southeast—the locus of logging operations in the
U.S. these days—and it will also benefit Canada’s boreal forest, from which the company still sources a large amount of its wood fiber. North America’s largest ancient forest by far, the Canadian boreal forest provides habitat for more than a billion birds as well as many a threatened species, including woodland caribou, bald eagles, golden eagles and wolverines. It is also the world’s largest storehouse of terrestrial carbon—all those miles of trees, moss, soil and peat soak up an estimated 186 billions tons of carbon that would otherwise contribute to global warming. Despite its value to the environment, some 60 percent of Canada’s boreal forest has already been allocated to forestry companies for development and less than 10 percent of it is formally protected in any way. Clear-cut logging by Kimberly-Clark and its competitors has claimed half a million acres of boreal forest annually in Canada’s Ontario and Alberta provinces alone in recent years.

“Because of Kimberly-Clark’s place in the paper products market, the company’s new policy will send a strong signal to its competitors, Procter & Gamble, SCA and Georgia Pacific, that creating a policy that protects ancient forests is a key element of sustainable business,” reports Greenpeace. Of course, there are plenty of other brands of tissue paper that already make use of primarily recycled and/or sustainably harvested fiber—check out Greenpeace’s Recycled Tissue and Toilet Paper Guide to find out which ones—but they are not easily found at mainstream grocers and big box stores. The more shoppers go for greener options, the more the paper industry will take notice and modify their offerings accordingly.

CONTACTS: Kimberly-Clark, www.kimberly-clark.com; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Are Atlantic bluefin tuna really about to go extinct? What are the contributing factors and what is being done to try to head off this tragedy? -- Edward Jeffries, Norwalk, CT

According to many marine biologists, Atlantic bluefin tuna, one of three closely related bluefin tuna species, are in danger of going extinct within a decade if the governments of the world can’t come together to ban catching and/or selling the lucrative species. The non-profit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which maintains an international “Red List” of threatened species, considers the Atlantic bluefin “Critically Endangered” given that its population numbers have declined by upwards of 80 percent since the 1970s. Even recently instituted stricter restrictions on allowable catch levels may be too little too late for the huge migratory fish.

The trouble began in the 1960s when fishing boats using purse seines and long lines to pull in fish for the canned tuna market harvested huge numbers of juvenile Atlantic bluefin. This highly efficient method of fishing decimated generations of Atlantic bluefin, constraining their reproductive capacity accordingly.

Today catch limits for Atlantic bluefin—even more in demand worldwide for sushi—are implemented and enforced by the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), a multinational group of fisheries regulators charged with maintaining sustainable levels of tuna throughout the Atlantic and neighboring waters. In 2007, ICCAT set the international annual catch limit for Atlantic bluefin at 30,000 tons; double what the commission’s own scientists recommended. More recently, ICCAT’s scientists recommended lowering the limit to 7,500 tons; ICCAT compromised with fishing interests and settled on a 13,500 ton limit. But despite these rules, analysts estimate that the fishing industry is actually still harvesting around 60,000 tons of Atlantic bluefin annually. ICCAT says that if stocks have not rebounded by 2022 it would consider closing down some tuna fishing areas.

With ICCAT’s limits having little effect on the animal’s decline, environmentalists took their case to the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in hopes of getting an international ban on the harvesting and sale of Atlantic bluefin. But in March 2010, 68 nations voted down the proposal; 20 countries, including the
U.S., voted for it, while 30 others abstained. The leading opponent of the ban, Japan—which consumes three-quarters of all bluefin tuna caught around the world—argued that ICCAT was the proper regulatory body to sustain Atlantic bluefin population numbers.

As for what concerned individuals can do, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program recommends avoiding bluefin tuna—sometimes called hon maguro or toro (tuna belly) at the supermarket and at restaurants—altogether. And that would not only be a good environmental move but good for your health, too: The non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a leading environmental group, recently issued a health advisory recommending that people avoid eating Atlantic bluefin due to elevated levels of neurotoxins including mercury and PCBs that can be found in the fish’s tissue. It seems the only way we can continue to live with bluefin tuna and so many other at-risk marine wildlife species is to live without them on our dinner plates.

CONTACTS: IUCN, www.iucn.org; ICCAT, www.iccat.int; CITES, www.cites.org; Seafood Watch, www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx; EDF, www.edf.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that organic tobacco production is booming in the U.S.? And are cigarettes made from organic tobacco any healthier for smokers? -- Nanci R., Petaluma, CA

To say business is booming would be an exaggeration, but it is true that many American tobacco farmers are beginning to transition to organic growing methods. Given the hard times growers have faced in recent decades—most Americans now revile smoking and farmers in other countries can produce higher volumes for substantially less cost—going organic is one way to keep charging premium prices. While growing organically costs more and yields a slightly less marketable product, farmers can make up the difference and then some since their organic tobacco will command double the price of their competitors’ conventionally grown, chemical-laden variety.

Companies like Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company and Organic Smoke, Inc., for example, are willing to pay this premium for the privilege of marketing the resulting “natural” cigarettes—which also avoid the chemical fillers and even extra nicotine of the standard smoke—as friendlier to the environment. Of course, buyers beware: No cigarette is good for you, whether it contains organic tobacco or not. If you have to smoke, a so-called “natural” cigarette will expose you to fewer toxins overall, but the primary risk still comes from the inhaled carcinogenic smoke of the burning tobacco leaves.

For its part, Santa Fe, maker of the American Spirit brand of “natural” cigarettes, has seen sales increase 10 percent yearly over the last decade to the point where its sales account for about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. cigarette market. During its first year of business two decades ago,
Santa Fe bought and processed 4,000 pounds of organic tobacco. In 2008, the company processed two million pounds. Upwards of 100 different farms spread across the U.S., Canada and Brazil now provide Santa Fe with organic tobacco leaf.

Besides buying only organic tobacco and eschewing chemical fillers, the company walks the socially responsible talk, too, powering its facilities with clean energy, extending benefits to same-sex domestic partners, and donating funds and volunteer time to the clean-up of
New Mexico’s Santa Fe River.

But what even some of its own customers may not know—you won’t find it on the packaging—is that Santa Fe’s profits are all going toward the bottom line of its corporate parent, Reynolds American, an outgrowth of longtime leading cigarette maker R.J. Reynolds, purveyor of such esteemed conventional brands as Camel, Winston and Salem. Reynolds American, which today sells one out of every three cigarettes sold in the U.S., rolled up Santa Fe as part of a major reorganization in 2004 and has been reaping the benefits of the growth in sales of cigarettes made with organic tobacco ever since.

Growing organic tobacco also benefits the burgeoning organic farming business overall: “Organic certification allows the growth of other high-value seasonal crops, which can demand a premium price on the ever-expanding organic market,” Santa Fe’s leaf director, Fielding Daniel, told the trade publication Tobacco Farm Quarterly, adding that growers are heartened by this new and profitable market and worry less about the cost of, and risk of mishandling, synthetic chemicals.

CONTACTS: Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, www.sfntc.com; Organic Smoke, Inc., www.organic-smoke.com; Tobacco Farm Quarterly, www.tobaccofarmquarterly.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to enable ocean fish populations to rebound after being so over-fished? Are nations coming together on this in any way? -- Deborah Kay, Milford, CT

There is no overarching international agreement to limit overfishing globally, but a few governments have been able to implement and enforce restrictions at regional levels that have resulted in rebounding fish stocks. The success of these isolated examples gives environmentalists and marine biologists hope that protecting marine hotspots from overfishing can save the biodiversity of the world’s oceans.

The results of an extensive four-year study released in 2006 by leading fisheries expert Boris Worm of Canada’s Dalhousie University and colleagues showed that overfishing would put every single commercial fishery in the world out of business by 2048, with the oceans potentially never recovering. But
University of Washington fisheries scientist Ray Hilborn challenged Worm’s frightening conclusion, offering evidence that several fisheries in parts of the U.S., Iceland and New Zealand were recovering. So the two men decided to team up on a new, even more comprehensive survey of fisheries around the world.

The results the second time around, published in 2010 in the peer-reviewed journal, Science, provided ocean advocates with somewhat more encouraging results. In half of the 10 fisheries studied by Worm, Hilborn and their researchers, closing some fisheries, creating protected areas, setting catch limits and modernizing equipment did result in lower exploitation rates and some fish are indeed on the rebound.

“This is a watershed,” Worm told reporters. The new study “shows clearly what can be done not only to avoid further fisheries collapse but to actually rebuild fish stocks” and provides a baseline which scientists and managers can use to gauge progress. “It’s only a start, but it gives me hope that we have the ability to bring overfishing under control,” he added.

Of course, a little bit of good news hardly means we’ve solved the overfishing problem. Environmentalists were particularly disappointed last year when the European Union (EU) announced it would set quotas for deep-sea fisheries even higher than expected. According to Uta Bellion, director of the European Marine Programme for the non-profit Pew Environment Group, the EU’s decision “will give fleets from
France, Spain and Portugal the opportunity to continue plundering these stocks.” She adds that the new quotas go against a 2009 United Nations General Assembly resolution that commits the EU to implement a set of measures to ensure the long-term sustainability of deep-sea fish and the rebuilding of depleted stocks.

Meanwhile, some groups are trying to end the government subsidies that effectively bankroll overfishing, legal or otherwise. The nonprofit Oceana, for instance, led an ill-fated 2010 effort to persuade the World Trade Organization to ban subsidies that encourage the depletion of fish and other marine resources. “Although 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are now either overexploited, fully exploited, significantly depleted or recovering from overexploitation, many governments continue to provide huge subsidies—about $20 billion annually—to their fishing sectors,” says Andy Sharpless, Oceana’s CEO. “The fleets are fishing at a level that’s as much as 2.5 times more than what’s required for sustainable catch levels.”

CONTACTS: Pew Environment Group, www.pewtrusts.org; Oceana, www.oceana.org; Boris Worm’s Lab, wormlab.biology.dal.ca; Ray Hilborn, www.fish.washington.edu/people/rayh.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s being done to “green up” professional sports? I know that the last two Olympic Games both made some effort, but are there others? -- Rob Avandic, Chicago, IL

The last two Olympics were indeed greener than any before, but environmental awareness isn’t limited to the realm of international amateur competition. In fact, in just the last few years all of the major professional North American sports leagues have made strides in greening their operations.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has helped blaze the trail through its “Greening the Games” initiative. Since 2003, when the National Football League’s (NFL) Philadelphia Eagles turned to NRDC for help saving energy and reducing waste, NRDC has helped dozens of pro teams evaluate their environmental impacts and make changes. Today the Eagles obtain all of their energy at Lincoln Field from wind power, pour fans’ beverages in biodegradable corn-based plastic cups, power their scoreboard with solar panels and have reduced electricity use overall by a third. The NFL itself has also jumped on the bandwagon, implementing various green initiatives at the Super Bowl, the Pro Bowl and other big events.

In 2008, NRDC teamed up with Major League Baseball (MLB) to first green the All Star Game and, the following year, the World Series. Subsequently, NRDC assessed each team’s environmental footprint and made recommendations for improving it. Several teams have gone on to build or refurbish their stadiums with sustainability in mind.
Boston’s Fenway Park, Atlanta’s Turner Field, Washington, DC’s Nationals Park, and San Francisco’s AT&T Park all get high marks for pro-environment features and operations.

In 2008, NRDC began working with the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) to green its signature event, the U.S. Open. For one, this led to a move to 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper for tournament programs. And an environmental review of all operations at the
National Tennis Center in Queens, New York led to a number of green improvements, including the switch to 90 percent post-consumer recycled paper for some 2.4 million napkins and a move to wind turbines for the tournament’s electricity.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) jumped on the NRDC sports bandwagon in 2009, working with the group to organize its first annual Green Week in early April whereby the entire league works in concert to generate environmental awareness and funding for related causes. As part of the festivities, which took place in 2010 as well and will happen again in April 2011, each NBA team hosted community service events including tree plantings, recycling drives and park clean-up days.

NRDC got the National Hockey League (NHL) in on the act as well, helping to green the Stanley Cup Finals and working with individual teams as it did with baseball and football. In announcing the launch of the NHL Green program, league commissioner Gary Bettman commented that it’s only fitting for professional ice hockey to care about staving off global warming: “Most of our players learned to skate on outdoor rinks. For that magnificent tradition to continue through future generations we need winter weather—and as a league we are uniquely positioned to promote that message.”

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org/greenbusiness/guides/sports/; MLB Team Greening Program, mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/community/team_greening.jsp; NBA Green, www.nba.com/green; NHL Green, www.nhl.com/ice/eventhome.htm?location=/nhlgreen; USTA, www.usta.com.

Dear EarthTalk: A number of federal energy efficiency related tax incentives expired at the end of 2010. Will any such programs remain in force and if not, are there other ways to save money on green upgrades? -- Jen Franklin, Chicago, IL

It is true that some federal tax credits for energy efficiency upgrades expired at the end of 2010, but there is legislative effort afoot to extend some of those credits—and there are plenty of other ways to defray the costs of turning over a new green leaf or two this year and beyond.

One of the best known green federal tax incentives, the Residential Energy Efficiency Tax Credit—which kicked in 30 percent of the cost of household efficiency upgrades up to $1,500 on items including water heaters, furnaces, heat pumps, central air conditioning systems, insulation, windows, doors and roofs—is no longer available as of January 1, 2011. However, some lawmakers are looking to extend the credit.
U.S. Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) have drafted legislation calling for keeping the program going, in a slightly revised form, for another two years.

“Residential energy efficiency has been identified as the most effective strategy to enhance our energy security and save money on energy bills,” says Snowe. “The residential energy efficiency tax credits…have been key catalysts in improving the energy efficiency of homes throughout the country [and] have driven companies to produce the most advanced products current technology allows…”

And if you were thinking you would save thousands of dollars on the price of a Toyota Prius thanks to federal incentives, think again. Federal tax credits also expired at the end of 2010 on the purchase of hybrid gas-electric cars and trucks. However, if you want to roll away in one of the sporty new all-electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt, you can now qualify for up to a $7,500 (depending on battery capacity) federal tax credit. The federal government now also offers a tax credit for 10 percent (up to $4,000) of the cost of a kit to convert an existing hybrid vehicle into a plug-in hybrid.

All of these programs expire themselves at the end of 2011. Whether or not new federal alternative fuel vehicle incentives crop up for 2012—when many new ultra-efficient plug-in hybrids from the likes of Toyota, Honda, Volvo and others are slated for release—remains to be seen.

Regardless, many states have their own programs to encourage energy efficiency. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) regularly updates its free online State Energy Efficiency Policy Database, which makes accessing information on your state’s energy efficiency programs, standards and “reward structures” as easy as clicking on a map. Likewise, the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) is another free online resource that lists state and federal incentives for buying an alternative fuel car, greening up your home or otherwise embracing energy efficiency. And the Energy Star website details special offers and rebates from cities, towns, counties and utilities on the purchase of appliances and equipment that meet federal standards for energy efficiency.

CONTACTS: Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE), www.dsireusa.org; ACEEE’s State Energy Efficiency Policy Database, www.aceee.org/sector/state-policy; Energy Star Special Offers and Rebates, www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?fuseaction=rebate.rebate_locator.

Dear EarthTalk: Aren’t environmental issues primarily about health? Detractors like to trivialize environmentalists as “tree huggers,” but the bottom line is that pollution makes us sick, right? Wouldn’t people care more if they had a better understanding of that? -- Tim Douglas, Stowe, VT

No doubt many of the ways we harm our environment come back to haunt us in the form of sickness and death. The realization that the pesticide-laced foods we eat, the smokestack-befouled air we breathe and the petrochemical-based products we use negatively affect our quality of life is a big part of the reason so many people have “gone green” in recent years.

Just following the news is enough to green anyone. Scientific American reported in 2009 that a joint U.S./Swedish study looking into the effects of household contaminants discovered that children who live in homes with vinyl floors—which can emit hazardous chemicals called phthalates—are twice as likely to develop signs of autism as kids in other homes. Other studies have shown that women exposed to high levels of polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) flame retardants common in cushions, carpet padding and mattresses—97 percent of us have detectable levels of these chemicals in our bloodstreams—are more likely to have trouble getting pregnant and suffer from other fertility issues as a result. Cheaply produced drywall made in
China can emit so much sulfur gas that it not only corrodes electrical wiring but also causes breathing problems, bloody noses and headaches for building occupants. The list goes on and on....

But perhaps trumping all of these examples is the potential disastrous health effects of global warming. Carbon dioxide emissions may not be directly responsible for health problems at or near their point of release, but in aggregate they can cause lots of distress. According to the Center for Health and the Global Environment at
Harvard Medical School, climate change over the coming decades is likely to increase rates of allergies, asthma, heart disease and cancer, among other illnesses. Also, it is quite likely that, as global temperature rises, diseases that were previously found only in warmer areas of the world may show up increasingly in other, previously cooler areas, where people have not yet developed natural defenses against them. And the loss of rain forest that accompanies increases in temperature means less access to undiscovered medicines and degradation of the environment’s ability to sustain our species.

Given the link between environmental problems and human health, more of us are realizing that what may seem like exorbitant up-front costs for environmental clean-up may well pay us dividends in the end when we see our overall health care costs go down and our loved ones living longer, healthier lives.

To help bridge the understanding gap between environmental problems and human health, the nonprofit Environmental Health Sciences offers the free website, Environmental Health News, which features daily reports on research showing how man-made environmental problems correspond to a wide range of individual and public health problems. Even your local TV station or newspaper likely carries an occasional story about the health effects of environmental pollution. We don’t have to look very hard to find examples of environmental neglect leading to human suffering. But with newfound public awareness and the commitment of younger generations to a cleaner future, we are moving in a good direction.

Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment, http://chge.med.harvard.edu; Environmental Health News, www.environmentalhealthnews.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Global population numbers continue to rise, as does the poverty, suffering and environmental degradation that goes with it. Has the U.S., under Obama, increased or at least restored its family planning aid to developing countries that was cut when the Bush Administration first took office? -- T. Healy, via e-mail

The short answer is yes. President Obama is much more interested in family planning around the world than his predecessor ever was. One of Obama’s first acts upon assuming office in 2009 was the restoration of funding for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). George W. Bush had withheld some $244 million in aid to the UNFPA over the previous seven years. UNFPA works with developing countries around the world to “reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.”

Reinstated U.S. funding will help the agency pursue its goals of universal access to reproductive health services, universal primary education and closing of the gender gap in education, reducing maternal and infant mortality, increasing life expectancy and decreasing HIV infection rates.

Along with restoring UNFPA funding, Obama also overturned the so-called “Global Gag Rule” that prohibited groups funded by the U.S. Agency in International Development (USAID) from using any government or non-government funds for “providing advice, counseling or information regarding abortion, or lobbying a foreign government to legalize or make abortion available.” Foreign nonprofits were already not allowed to use U.S. funds to pay for abortions, but the Global Gag Rule—first instituted as the ‘Mexico City Policy’ in 1984 by the Reagan White House, then overturned by Clinton and later reinstated by George W. Bush—went further by restricting the free speech rights of government grantees and stifling public debate on the contentious topic. Foreign NGOs that accept
U.S. funding still cannot perform abortions, but can discuss the options openly with the families they serve.

“For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has served only to divide us,” said Barack Obama upon overturning the policy as one of his first acts in office. “It is time that we end the politicization of this issue.”

Of course, advocates for increased family planning are pressuring the Obama administration to step up its efforts aboard even more. The
Institute of Medicine, one of four government-affiliated nonprofit “academies” of experts, recommended last spring that the U.S. increase its spending on global health by some 50 percent over the $63 billion pledged by the Obama White House over the next six years.

Groups providing family planning services domestically would also like to see the Obama administration step up funding for their programs, not only to improve the quality of life for American families but to save money and reduce abortions as well: A 2009 report by the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute concluded that publicly funded family planning services at both hospitals and non-profit clinics saves taxpayers $4 for every $1 spent by preventing nearly two million pregnancies and 810,000 abortions per year.

CONTACTS: UNFPA, www.unfpa.org; USAID, www.usaid.gov;
Institute of Medicine, www.iom.edu; Guttmacher Institute, www.guttmacher.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the use of antibiotics in raising farm animals is threatening to make bacteria overall more resistant to antibiotics, which has serious life and death implications for people. Can you enlighten and advise what is being done about this? -- Robert Gelb, Raleigh, NC

Most medical doctors would agree that antibiotic drugs—which stave off bacterial infections from staph to salmonella to bacterial pneumonia—are among the most important tools in modern medicine. But public health advocates, environmentalists and even many doctors worry that our society’s overuse and misuse of antibiotics is making bacteria more resistant and thus limiting the effectiveness of these lifesaving drugs.

Bacterial resistance to our antibiotics simply means longer, more serious and more costly illnesses. The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, a nonprofit that conducts research around the world on antibiotic resistance, estimates that antibiotic resistance has been responsible for upwards of $16 billion annually in extra costs to the U.S. health care system in recent years. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers antibiotic resistance one of its top concerns.

While misuse of antibiotics for human health problems is definitely a concern—those with a valid need for antibiotics who don’t finish off their prescriptions, for example, could effectively help bacteria develop resistance and make it stronger for when it infects its next host—a larger issue is the misuse of antibiotics to treat the common cold and flu and other viral infections which do not involve bacteria. The more antibiotics we use willy-nilly, the faster bacteria will develop resistance, rendering many of the drugs modern medicine has come to rely on obsolete.

Of even greater concern is the preponderance of antibiotics used down on the farm. “Antibiotics often are used on industrial farms not only to treat sick animals but also to offset [the health effects of] crowding and poor sanitation, as well as to spur animal growth,” reports the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming. Indeed, researchers estimate that up to 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the U.S. are given to healthy food animals to artificially expedite their growth and compensate for the effects of unsanitary farm conditions. “The routine use of antibiotics in food animals presents a serious and growing threat to human health because it creates new strains of dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” says Pew.

So what can we do to curtail the overuse and misuse of antibiotics? For one, we should not prescribe or use antibiotics to (mis)treat viral infections. Beyond being conscientious with our own bodies, we should also urge farmers to reduce their use of these drugs. Pew and other groups are trying to muster public support for the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA, H.R. 1549/S. 619), which if enacted would withdraw from food animal production the routine use of seven classes of antibiotics vitally important to human health unless animals are diseased or drug companies can prove that their use does not harm human health. Hundreds of groups, including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Pediatricians, Infectious Diseases Society of America and World Health Organization support the legislation. Pew is urging concerned citizens to call their Representatives and Senators and advocate for pushing the legislation into committee hearings.

CONTACTS: Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics, www.tufts.edu/med/apua; CDC, www.cdc.gov; Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, www.saveantibiotics.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Why did 34 million wild sockeye salmon return to the Fraser River in British Columbia this year? The run had been declining for 20 years before now. -- David B., Seattle, WA

The miraculous sockeye salmon run in western Canada’s Fraser River watershed in the summer and fall of 2010—indeed the biggest run in 97 years—still has fishers, researchers and fishery managers baffled. Just a year earlier only one million fish returned to spawn. No one seems to be able to say for sure what caused the massive 2010 run, but most agree that it probably had to do with the very favorable water conditions that were present in 2008 when the sockeyes were juveniles. “They’re very vulnerable at that stage of their life,” reports John Reynolds, a salmon conservation expert at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

Roberta Hamme, a researcher with Canada’s University of Victoria, suggests in a recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters that the ash fall from the eruption of Alaska’s Kasatochi volcano in 2008 may be one reason for the huge 2010 run. Iron in the ash, which was spewed far and wide by the erupting volcano and then dispersed further by turbulent weather, served as a fertilizer throughout the North Pacific. The result was huge algae blooms that dramatically improved the fish’s food supply. A similar large Fraser River salmon run in 1958 was likewise preceded by a huge volcanic eruption in Alaska.

What was particularly striking about 2010’s mammoth run was the contrast against 2009, when the Fraser River sockeye run was a disaster by all accounts. It capped 20 years of decline and was so much worse than anyone had expected that the Canadian government formed a commission to investigate possible causes, reported Daniel Jack Chasan on the Pacific Northwest news website, Crosscut.

The situation was terrible in 2008, as well, so much so that on the U.S. side of the border, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez declared the Fraser salmon fishery a disaster and allocated $2 million to U.S. tribes and commercial fishermen to make up for their loss of income. But strangely enough, just as the Canadian commission began investigating the paltry 2009 run, said Chasan, commercial fishermen “started hauling in more Fraser River sockeye than any of them had ever seen.”

Generally speaking, scientists and environmentalists are well aware of why wild West Coast salmon runs have been declining over the past century: namely pollution at almost every inch along the thousand mile river-to-sea-and-back underwater journey, overfishing in both rivers and the ocean, and man-made obstructions to fish passage. But environmentalists are now optimistic that the huge 2010 sockeye run is a sign of better times ahead. Perhaps improved logging practices, a resurgence in organic farming, new protections for upstream habitat or restrained commercial fishing catch limits—or some combination thereof—has begun to make a difference in salmon survival.

In any event, the salmon runs typically peak every fourth year—2010 was supposed to be a peak year but substantially exceeded expectations. Only time will tell if the masses of sockeyes in the Fraser in 2010 were a fluke or foreshadow better days ahead for the environment—and for the fish and people in it.

CONTACTS: John Reynolds, www.sfu.ca/biology/faculty/reynolds/The_Reynolds_Lab; Geophysical Research Letters, www.agu.org/journals/gl; Crosscut, www.crosscut.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain what “fracking” is with regard to natural gas exploration and why it is controversial? -- Jonas Kern, Bellevue, WA

Fracking is shorthand within the oil and gas industry for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process in which drillers blast millions of gallons of water, sand and hazardous chemicals at high-pressure into sub-surface rock formations to create fractures that facilitate the flow of recoverable oil or gas. According to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the
U.S. are “fracked” to boost production. Fracking usually occurs just after a new well is drilled, but many wells are fractured numerous times to get as much production out of a profitable site as possible.

But after a series of accidents in
Pennsylvania and elsewhere over the last few years, fracking has come under attack as dangerous to both human health and the environment. The most common problem involves the disposal of the toxic sludge that results from fracking. Texas-based XTO Energy, for instance, racked up 31 fracking-related pollution violations at 20 wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale in 2010 alone. But the fact that between 20 and 40 percent of the chemicals remain stranded underground—where they can contaminate drinking water, soils and other features of the environment that plants, animals and humans rely on—is perhaps even more troubling. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a least nine different chemicals commonly used in fracking are injected into oil and gas wells at concentrations that pose a threat to human health.

With Americans getting half of their drinking water from underground sources, it’s no wonder that people are concerned about the risks of fracking—especially since 2005 when George W. Bush exempted oil and gas companies from federal regulations designed to protect our drinking water. Meanwhile, most state oil and gas regulatory agencies don’t require companies to report the volumes or names of chemicals being used in extraction (benzene, chloride, toluene and sulfates are among them). The result, according to the non-profit Oil and Gas Accountability Project, is that one of the country’s dirtiest industries enjoys an exclusive right to “inject toxic fluids directly into good quality groundwater without oversight.”

There are other potential issues with fracking as well. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) warns that beyond contaminating drinking water with toxic and in some cases carcinogenic chemicals, fracking could trigger earthquakes, poison grazing livestock, and overburden our wastewater systems—especially since drilling expanded during Bush’s tenure in the White House.

In response to public concern about the potential risks associated from fracking, the EPA recently commenced a comprehensive study on the topic. Oil companies and environmentalists alike hope that the study puts to rest any debate over the environmental impacts of the process. In the meantime, the city council in
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania recently voted to outlaw fracking there, while New York governor David Paterson extended a moratorium on fracking in his state through July of 2011, citing concerns about whether the technique is safe enough to allow it at all moving forward. Other municipalities and states are waiting to see what the EPA finds before making their own decisions on fracking.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, www.iogcc.state.ok.us; Oil and Gas Accountability Project, ogap.org; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.

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