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by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What is the latest thinking on the environmental causes (if any) of autism? I hear so much conflicting information I don’t know what to believe.      -- Bill Stribling, Austin, TX

In the 1980s, about one in 2,000 American kids was diagnosed with autism. Today the number is around one in 68, according to estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. This disconcerting increase has led to intensified examination into what environmental factors may play a role in the disorder’s development. A wide range of exposures have been scientifically linked to autism, including air pollutants, phthalates and other endocrine disruptors, pesticides such as Chlorpyrifos, and many more. Vaccines were considered a leading culprit, but more recent research has proven this connection wrong — although the subject still engenders much debate.

A 2014 study by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health found a strong link between autism and in utero exposure to air pollution: the risk of autism was doubled among children of women exposed to high levels of particulate air pollution during pregnancy. Another 2014 study out of the University of California, Davis determined that pregnant women living in close proximity to fields and farms where chemical pesticides are applied experience a 66 percent increased risk of having a child with autism or a developmental delay. The advocacy group Autism Speaks, which contributed to the funding of the Harvard study, believes that despite all the emerging data linking toxic exposures to autism, no environmental influence appears to cause or prevent autism by itself—rather they appear to influence risk in those genetically predisposed to the disorder.

“It’s important to remember that not all mothers exposed to air pollution during pregnancy will have a child with autism and not all children with autism were necessarily exposed to air pollution in utero,” said epidemiologist Michael Rosanoff, associate director for public health at Autism Speaks. “We know autism is a complex disorder and underlying genetic and biological factors interact to influence susceptibility. The next step is to identify the biological mechanisms that connect air pollution to autism and identify ways to treat if not prevent the harm to brain development.”

While many studies linking environmental toxins and autism have been inconclusive, one developing research approach appears to hold great promise. Remarkably, fallen baby teeth can be used to track a child’s prenatal and infant exposure to chemicals—thus allowing scientists to determine what environmental causes may have contributed to the disorder’s development.

“As a result, we can use teeth like an archeological record,” says Dr. Raymond Palmer of the University of Texas Health Science Center. “The enamel of different types of teeth begins to form at different points during prenatal development. In infancy, the enamel continues to absorb chemicals circulating through the baby’s body.” Palmer says the greatest insights from dental analysis may come from looking at chemical exposures along with gene abnormalities, which may affect one’s vulnerability to potentially toxic chemicals. “It’s not necessarily genes or environment,” he adds. “It’s likely to be both.”

Alysson Muotri at the University of California San Diego Department of Pediatrics is using teeth analysis to identify gene abnormalities in children with autism, even in cases with no previous known genetic cause. Parents of an 8-year-old autistic boy mailed Muotri’s team one of the boy’s baby teeth, and the researchers were able to detect a mutation in a gene known as TRPC6. The researchers treated the autistic boy with hyperforin, the active ingredient in St. John’s Wort. Dental analysis could potentially lead to personalized treatment for autism, whether the cause be identified as genetic, environmental or both.

CONTACTS: CDC Autism Spectrum Disorder Page, www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/; Autism Speaks, www.autismspeaks.org; Muotri Lab at UCSD, www.pediatrics.ucsd.edu/research/muotri-lab; UT Health Science Center, www.uthscsa.edu.

Dear EarthTalk: Why do many green groups oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) governing trade in the Pacific?          -- Jane Donahue, Larchmont, NY
The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an international agreement that seeks to unite the economic interests of 12 countries that border the Pacific Ocean by lowering trade tariffs and establishing an international trade court to settle disputes. TPP emerged as a West Coast equivalent to the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, designed to ease trade restrictions between the U.S. and Europe. But TPP has progressed much faster thanks to the willingness of Pacific nations to “play ball.” 

International negotiators released a draft of the TPP agreement in October 2015 and are awaiting approvals from participating governments. However, despite the theoretical advantages of more fluid international trade, the current draft has several complications that could lead to a variety of problems for participating nations and others, meaning its implementation is far from a sure thing at this point.

Green leaders criticize the Obama administration and negotiators from other countries for keeping early talks on the formation of the TPP closed to observers and media. Many individuals and public interest groups requested access to the discussions, fearing that the agreement would unfairly favor large corporations. However, those appeals were ignored and the drafted document revealed what many feel was a prioritization of corporate interests over health and environmental concerns. Without any enforceable guarantees for environmental protection, the TPP could actually significantly contribute to global warming through increased exportation of U.S. fossil fuel supplies.

Additionally, differences in national policies regulating chemical use, artificial fertilizers and seeds from genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have yielded an agreement that encourages minimal protection. The non-profit Public Citizen points out that existing U.S. regulation of pesticide and GMO labeling on packaging could be challenged in the international court as “trade barriers.” Another point of contention is the distinct advantage given to foreign corporations under the current TPP model. Overseas firms would be able to sue the U.S. government over new policies that disrupt the company’s “expectations.”

Perhaps more troubling is what’s not included in the document, which fails to mention how it will protect from over-harvesting of limited natural resources. Green groups point out that, while the TPP accounts for nearly a third of global fish harvest, there are no provisions to protect against overfishing. The draft also barely mentions enforceable safeguards of endangered species products, such as elephant ivory. 

Yet another issue critics say is woefully ignored is social justice. With free-trade opening up, even more American jobs would be sent overseas to reduce costs. Economists estimate that five million U.S. jobs could shift oversees under the TPP, resulting in serious pay cuts for American workers. Meanwhile, the richest 10 percent would profit at even higher rates, adding to an already drastic U.S. wealth inequality. 

Clearly, the current draft of the TPP agreement needs a lot of work before Congress should even consider it. Those opposed to the current version of the TPP can voice their dissatisfaction by signing onto the Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership petition on MoveOn.org, or by urging your representatives in Congress to vote against it altogether.

CONTACTS: TPP Page, https://ustr.gov/tpp; Public Citizen, www.citizen.org; MoveOn.org’s Stop the Trans-Pacific Partnership Petition, petitions.moveon.org/sign/stop-the-trans-pacific.

Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to save elephants around the world? I understand that these magnificent creatures are teetering on the brink of extinction. – Millie Vicente, San Jose, CA

In just one decade between 1979 and 1989, half of all Africa’s elephants were lost to the ivory trade. Public outrage over the loss led to a ban on all international trade in elephant tusks by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)—an international agreement regulating trade in wild animals and plants—and African elephant populations were able to bounce back.

However, a disturbing new wave of illegal elephant poaching has been underway in Africa in recent years, due to rising demand for ivory goods by China’s budding middle class. As much as 70 percent of illegal ivory goes to China. In Beijing, one pound of ivory can bring in $1,000. From 2010 to 2012 alone, 100,000 elephants were killed for ivory tusks. Last year, approximately 30,000 elephants were illegally poached—this equates to one elephant being killed every 15 minutes.

Massacres that leave behind graveyards of nearly 100 elephant remains have become prevalent across Africa. In 2013, poachers on horseback in southwest Chad shot and cut the tusks off of at least 86 elephants, including 33 pregnant females, in less than a week. American missionary Gary Roberts tried to rescue a surviving baby he found tied to a tree, but despite his best efforts the elephant died. “The poachers killed pregnant females and all the calves,” said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). “Even if the conditions were right, which they are not, it would take more than 20 years for this population to recover.”

In Zimbabwe, poachers are using cyanide to kill entire herds at a time. In October 2015, rangers in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park found 78 elephants killed by the poison. “We’re now trying to check how many elephants had fully developed tusks, because babies are among those killed,” said Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management spokeswoman Caroline Washaya-Moyo. “The rate at which we are losing animals to cyanide is alarming,” she added. Some 300 elephants fell victim to the same fate in the park a year before. Many non-target species are also dying from the cyanide intended for elephants. The park agency was hoping drones and trained dogs would intensify poacher monitoring.

According to a June 2014 CITES report, 20 percent of Africa’s elephants may be killed in the next 10 years if poaching continues at current levels. Meanwhile, many worry that extinction isn’t far off. “This species could be extinct in our lifetime, within one or two decades, if the current trend continues,” said Dune Ives, senior researcher at Vulcan Inc., which is working with the non-profit Elephants Without Borders on the Great Elephant Census to document elephant population numbers around the world. “In five years, we may have lost the opportunity to save this magnificent and iconic animal.”

Meanwhile, other groups are working diligently to spread awareness about the ongoing crisis. In summer 2015, Save the Elephants staged public demonstrations in Beijing and New York City where they destroyed nearly two tons of ivory. “If we want our grandchildren to grow up in a world where they see elephants in the wild,” U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the crowd amassed at the New York event in Times Square, “we owe it to them to shut down the market that fuels poachers.”

CONTACTS: CITES, www.cites.org; IFAW, www.ifaw.org; Great Elephant Census, www.greatelephantcensus.com; Elephants Without Borders, www.elephantswithoutborders.org; Save the Elephants, savetheelephants.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Why is the Arctic such a crucial area to focus on in efforts to stem global warming?         -- Joseph Constabile, Dedham, MA

The image of a polar bear standing on a shrinking iceberg has become one of the most iconic symbols of global warming, yet few of us realize just how important the Arctic’s ice is, wherever we may live on the earth. Researchers consider the Arctic to be an “indicator region” for the rest of the planet, given that even small differences in temperature there can have profound ecosystem impacts and can give us a better idea of the types of problems we can all expect down the road.

Of course, the effects of global warming have been under scrutiny in the Arctic for decades already. Since 1979, the extent of the Arctic’s permanent ice cap has shrunk by upwards of 20 percent. Even worse, the remaining ice has thinned by as much as two-thirds in some parts of the Arctic. Recent models suggest this ice loss will only accelerate in the next several years due to a global warming feedback loop called the “albedo effect,” whereby less ice means less reflection of the sun’s radiation back into space and thus more warming at the Earth’s surface. And not only is the ice shrinking—parts of the ice cap are also rupturing: The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, the largest block of ice in the Arctic and intact for some 3,000 years, finally cracked in 2000, and within two years split all the way through.

These changes up north are already starting to have ripple effects elsewhere. For starters, the entire Arctic ecosystem is being forced to shift with the changing climate. Animals like polar bears, whales and seals are changing migration patterns, in turn impacting native people who depend on them for sustenance. Meanwhile, other organisms are overpopulating, given all the new habitat opening up. Rising temperatures have allowed the spruce bark beetle to add an extra reproduction cycle each year. As a result the pesky little beetles decimated 3.4 million acres of Alaska’s forests over just 10 years.

And then there’s the issue of sea level rise. Thanks in large part to melting Arctic glaciers, sea level is expected to rise some three feet on average around the world in the next century, flooding over 22,000 square miles in the United States alone. This pressing issue threatens island nations especially. Countries like the Maldives, precariously perched just six feet above sea level, are as concerned as anyone about melting glaciers in the Arctic. And warming in the Arctic also affects weather patterns vital for food production all over the world. Cold water from the melting ice could also potentially halt the Gulf Stream, which brings warm weather to Europe. This would result in a steep drop in temperature for much of northwestern Europe and would affect weather patterns far beyond.

While it may seem futile for us to try to stop Arctic ice melting, we do in fact have the power. We can all work to reduce our carbon footprints by flying and driving less, turning down (or off) the heat or air conditioning, speaking up to our elected officials, and even divesting from companies that support the continued development of fossil fuels.

CONTACTS: NOAA Arctic Change website, http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/detect/climate-strat.shtml; EPA Carbon Footprint Calculator, http://www3.epa.gov/carbon-footprint-calculator/.

Dear EarthTalk: How are borderlands causing widespread environmental damage while splintering families and communities across the U.S. Southwest?        -- Peter Jackson, Baltimore, MD

Today, over 650 miles of border walls and barriers have been constructed in all four southern Border States: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Sierra Club Borderlands campaign has spoken up against the substantial border wall construction, arguing that it has had dire consequences for vast expanses of pristine wild lands, including wildlife refuges, wilderness areas and national forest lands, among other areas. Additionally, several species of wildlife have been observed and photographed stranded by the border wall, the group states, suggesting that many threatened and endangered species are suffering from border wall development as well.

In their short films, Wild Versus Wall and Too Many Tracks, the Sierra Club describes how the significance of the borderlands—a vast and ecologically distinct region with a multitude of mountain ranges, two of North America’s four deserts and major river ecosystems—has been ignored by current U.S. border policy. The borderlands provide important habitat for rare and threatened wildlife species, including many federally-listed threatened and endangered species. But in 2005, Congress passed the REAL ID Act, which included a provision that allows the Secretary of Homeland Security to waive all local, state and federal laws, including the Endangered Species Act, deemed an impediment to building walls and roads along U.S. borders. Border patrol has now built stadium-like lights, roads and towers in sensitive, remote areas, the Sierra Club says, and the roads fragment and destroy habitat while high voltage lighting affects nocturnal animals’ ability to feed and migrate.

“Border Patrol’s off-road driving, tire dragging and ATV use in designated roadless wilderness has left an immense scar on the landscape,” said Dan Millis, borderlands program coordinator for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

The Sierra Club continues to raise awareness on borderland habitat degradation with the hope that they can combat further border wall development that may pose harm to the environment and wildlife. In a November 2015 trip to a U.S-Mexico border wall in Bisbee, Arizona, Millis told Borderlands campaigners how the jaguar is an “emblematic species for why this wall is problematic…It’s important for wildlife, like the jaguar, to be able to have access to a range. The jaguar used to live in the United States, all the way up to the Grand Canyon… the jaguar’s critical habitat has been established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and it includes areas that are bisected by these walls. And that’s really problematic if we want to see a very majestic species like the jaguar…we’re going to have to these problems like this border wall seriously.”

Millis also informed the campaigners of several other ecological issues associated with border development, including increased erosion, flooding and soil degradation. “We’re encouraging Border Patrol and Homeland Security to keep this stuff in mind as they move forward on projects,” Millis said. “They need to do things in a way that is more sustainable.”

CONTACT: Sierra Club Borderlands Campaign, www.sierraclub.org/borderlands.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com

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