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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any proven links between exposure to pollution and mental health problems? -- John C., Scranton, PA

Mental health and environment are two issues often in the spotlight, though not often associated together. But some researchers have begun to find links between increases in polluted air, water and soil and growing mental health problems throughout our society.

Several recent studies showed that exposure to high levels of air pollutants, like fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide, is linked to higher risks of mental health problems. Several studies have found that long-term exposure to air pollution can increase risks of depression, anxiety and even neurodevelopmental disorders in children. Harvard researchers recently concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution correlates to late-life depression in older Americans. More studies are needed, but researchers believe that the inflammation and oxidative stress caused by air pollution likely affects mental health negatively.

Emerging research also suggests that air pollution may have adverse effects on cognitive abilities, including memory and decision-making. These impairments can, in turn, contribute to stress and anxiety. Exposure to contaminants like lead, arsenic and pesticides in drinking water can have neurotoxic effects, too, leading to behavioral and cognitive problems in both children and adults and contributing to the development of mental health issues like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and depression.

Noise pollution, often overlooked but pervasive in urban areas, can also harm mental well-being. Chronic exposure to noise pollution can lead to increased stress levels, sleep disturbances and heightened anxiety and depression. Noise pollution's negative impact on mental health is compounded by its association with increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, which can further contribute to mental health problems.

Environmental justice aspects of pollution and mental health are at issue, too. Low-income communities and marginalized populations are often disproportionately exposed to pollution due to factors such as proximity to industrial facilities and limited access to green spaces. Consequently, these communities face a higher burden of mental health issues linked to pollution, exacerbating existing health disparities.

Addressing these concerns requires concerted efforts on multiple fronts. Governments and regulatory bodies must prioritize air and water quality standards, enforce pollution controls and invest in cleaner technologies. Individuals can reduce their personal exposure by using air purifiers and cleaner transportation options, and advocating for clean energy policies. Also, mental health services need to incorporate environmental factors into their assessment and treatment plans. Healthcare professionals should be trained to recognize the potential role of pollution in mental health problems.

CONTACTS: Association of Long-term Exposure to Air Pollution With Late-Life Depression in Older Adults in the U.S., jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2801241; Growing Evidence for the Impact of Air Pollution on Depression, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6447209/; Pollution and our mental health, ehn.org/air-pollution-and-mental-health-2656823544.html; Air pollution can alter our brains in ways that increase mental illness risk, ehn.org/air-pollution-mental-illness-2655532520.html; Is there a link between air pollution and mental health? iqair.com/us/newsroom/air-pollution-and-mental-health.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some ways to grow more food on less land given that human population is growing as the amount of arable land shrinks? -- Peter B., Washington, DC

It’s no secret that Earth is facing a daunting challenge: With human numbers expected to swell to 10 billion by 2060 and the amount of arable land shrinking at a rate of about 23 hectares per minute (!), finding sustainable ways to produce more food on less land is a pressing concern. Fortunately, innovative solutions and practices are emerging to address this issue and ensure food security for future generations.

Perhaps the best developed kind of “future farming” is vertical farming, in which crops are grown in stacked layers instead of horizontally like at conventional farms. Controlled environments in vertical farms allow for year-round cultivation, precise control over factors like temperature and humidity, and significant water savings. They can be and often are indoors. In fact, multiple floors in tall buildings in big city centers could be devoted to this agricultural technique. Producing food closer to its consumers reduces transportation costs and emissions, reducing everyone’s carbon footprint from farm to table.

One of the ways vertical farms make do with less water than conventional farms is through hydroponics, whereby plants are grown in small amounts of nutrient-rich water instead of soil, maximizing land use efficiency and offering faster growth and crop turnover cycles. Hydroponic farming has already shown to be ideal for small or residential growers looking to produce a steady flow of herbs and vegetables.

Besides vertical farming and hydroponics, there is much we can do to optimize conventional farming to make it more future-proof. Farmers can use advanced technologies like GPS, sensors and drones to optimize crop management, making their lives easier and their harvests more abundant. By precisely tailoring irrigation, fertilization and pest control to specific areas of a field, farmers can maximize yields and minimize resource usage. This approach ensures that every inch of arable land is used efficiently.

Another way to make the most of conventional agriculture land is to diversify the landscape and crop output. To wit, agroforestry and permaculture are holistic farming practices that integrate trees, crops and livestock on the same piece of land. These systems mimic natural ecosystems and can greatly increase food production while conserving soil, water and biodiversity. Likewise, forward-looking farmers are starting to incorporate techniques like cover cropping, crop rotation and no-tilling to enhance soil health and reduce the need for chemicals while enabling higher crop yields without expanding agricultural land.

Those of us who are not farmers can play a big role in solving the impending food shortage crisis the world faces. One way to be part of the solution is to reduce food waste and advocate the same to others. The United Nations estimates that over a third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted each year. By reducing waste, we can make better use of the food we already produce, alleviating some of the pressure on arable land. Another way to help is to eliminate animal products. Plant-based diets are generally less land-intensive than diets heavily reliant on animal agriculture—and require fewer resources to produce equivalent caloric and nutritional values.

CONTACTS: Vertical Farming for the Future, usda.gov/media/blog/2018/08/14/vertical-farming-future; Reducing food loss and waste: Taking Action to Transform Food Systems, un.org/en/observances/end-food-waste-day

Dear EarthTalk: My kitchen is overdue for an update. I’m wondering what’s the latest, greatest and greenest today in countertop materials, flooring, paint and appliances? – H. Barton, via email

Kitchens have traditionally had one of the worst environmental footprints in the home. However, technological advancements have brought more eco-friendly materials and tools for greener kitchens. Choose components wisely and you can do the planet a favor while you make the most lived-in room in the house better for everyone.

The first place to start thinking greener is paint. Conventional paint, especially oil-based varieties, contains lots of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are off-gassing synthetic chemicals that not only can cause human health issues like headaches and nausea and have been linked to some cancers and also contribute to the build-up of ground-level ozone, a noxious pollutant in its own right. If you want to avoid VOCs in your new kitchen, paint it with water-based paints bearing either the Greenguard or Green Seal logos—these certifications ensure the paint in the can has little if any VOCs. Popular eco-friendly brands include AFM Safecoat, ECOS Paints, Bioshield and Behr Premium Plus.

Countertops are another kitchen area where we’ve come a long way with eco-friendly options. Teragren’s “carbon-negative” counters are made of bamboo, which grows quickly and sequesters carbon dioxide in the process. Another great green choice for counters is Greenguard-certified Grenite, which uses recycled quartz, ceramics and acrylic to create countertops that are affordable and resistant to heat, stains and scratches. If you’re looking for a colorful or more distinct option, take a look at Richlite, also certified by Greenguard as well as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). This innovative material is created by stacking recycled paper sheets, saturating them with phenolic resin, and applying heat and pressure.

Eco-conscious choices now also abound in flooring. Bamboo works as well on floors as countertops. Another increasingly popular green flooring option is cork. Contrary to hardwood, production of cork only requires the outer bark of a tree. Cork contains a natural waxy substance called suberin that prevents water and gasses from penetrating through. Accordingly, cork flooring offers excellent insulation, energy conservation, durability of up to 30 years, and natural hypoallergenic and insect-repellent properties. However, cork floors are often stained and coated, so look out for VOCs in the additives. Yet another great green choice for kitchen floors is Marmoleum, a naturally germicidal, waterproof and VOC-free form of linoleum composed of 97 percent natural material.

Upgrading to modern, energy-efficient appliances is another way to make your kitchen remodel pay dividends for the planet. Keep an eye out for appliances bearing the EnergySTAR certification, which ensures that the appliance you are eyeing meets or beats U.S. Department of Energy standards for energy efficiency. This will help lower your greenhouse gas emissions and also reduce your energy bill. Another earth-friendly upgrade would be to ditch the gas stove for an all-electric induction model; you’ll not only lower your carbon footprint but also probably improve the indoor air quality inside your home.

CONTACTS: UL GREENGUARD Certification, https://www.ul.com/services/ul-greenguard-certification; Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), https://fsc.org; EnergySTAR, https://www.energystar.gov/; Teragren, https://teragren.com; Grenite. https://grenite.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What's the connection, if any, between the onset of global warming and an increase in violent human behavior? -- Robert C., Southampton, MA

It's not uncommon to hear talk about the dire consequences of global warming—rising-sea levels, extreme weather and ecological disruptions. But there's another dimension to this crisis that doesn’t get much attention but is equally concerning: the link between global warming and increased violent behavior.

Indeed, a new study from University of Washington and Boston University researchers that surveyed data from 100 U.S. cities found that hotter-than-normal days—which we are getting more of every year thanks to global warming—coincide with higher incidences of gun violence. Several other previous studies underscore the connection between warmer temperatures and violence, with murder, rape and assault rates higher across the board during warmer-than-average stretches of days, months, seasons and years.

How does this add up? Researchers believe that prolonged exposure to climate change-related stressors can lead to anxiety, depression, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—and that those experiencing these mental health issues may be more susceptible to engaging in violent behaviors as a coping mechanism or due to their altered mental state.

According to Iowa State University psychology researcher Craig Anderson, higher temperatures cause the brain to divert resources to other parts of the body in order to cool down. When this happens, parts of the brain are not running at full capacity, making it harder to process new information, manage emotions and control impulses. People who are hot are also more likely to perceive others as behaving aggressively, which increases the odds of hostile confrontations. “Heat stress primes people to act more aggressively,” reports Anderson. “We can see this play out on a larger scale across geographic regions and over time.”

While it’s clear that hotter temperatures can rile people up more than usual, the ripple effect on society at large is more troubling. The predicted decline in crop yields and scarcity of drinking water in a fast-warming world could act like a multiplier effect on our tendency to get short-tempered when we heat up, and regional violent conflicts over essential resources—food and water—are the likely result.

Historians point to the 2011 civil war in Syria as an example of climate change catalyzing violent conflict. Prolonged warming-induced droughts there contributed to crop failures and displacement of rural communities which exacerbated existing social and political tensions creating an environment that erupted into full-scale civil war. These types of conflicts are likely to become more and more common as we continue to add more and more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

One way to minimize warming-induced violence at the meta level is to reduce warming by reducing our carbon footprints. And we can also take other steps to ensure a more peaceful future regardless of our ability to rein in emissions. Building resilient communities and food systems can go a long way towards reducing violence in the face of climate-related stressors. And we should prioritize mental health services and support systems to assist individuals in coping with the psychological impacts of climate change.

CONTACTS: Analysis of Daily Ambient Temperature and Firearm Violence in 100 US Cities, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamanetworkopen/fullarticle/2799635; Climate as a risk factor for armed conflict, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1300-6.

Dear EarthTalk: I hear that ebony is going extinct in the wild. Is there anything we can do to conserve what’s left and are there alternatives we can use instead? -- Paul B., Bowie, MD

Ebony wood is frequently used in furniture and musical instruments because of its exceptional hardness, density, fine texture and extremely dark hue. The immense demand for this valuable hardwood has led to overexploitation and illegal logging. Meanwhile, the culling of the biggest trees has meant successive generations are smaller and smaller—and ebony trees are slow growers to begin with. Regenerating an ebony forest after it’s been cut could take upwards of a century.

Ebony grows mainly in central Africa and southeast Asia, and is critical for economies heavily reliant on natural resources. Insufficient environmental regulations make it disturbingly easy for illicit logging groups to operate in remote forests. Without proper management, loggers typically target physically superior trees, leading to the weakening of the genetic pool of the remaining trees. On a larger scale, the loss of ebony trees carries adverse consequences for local ecosystems. These trees provide sustenance to wildlife; their fruits feed monkeys and apes, while their leaves support animals like elephants.

If you decide to buy a product containing ebony, look for certifications from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Program for Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC). Wood that is certified by these groups is sourced from forests that are managed in a manner that safeguards biodiversity, supports the well-being of local communities and laborers, and maintains economic sustainability. Fraudulent certification labeling is on the rise among ebony vendors trying to deceive eco-conscious consumers into purchasing their products. To verify the authenticity of a certification, search the FSC and PEFC databases.

Above all else, abstaining from purchasing ebony is the most effective way to prevent your contribution to its overexploitation. Fortunately, there are many other types of wood that may suit your color, durability and texture preferences.

Katalox, or Mexican Royal Ebony, is a non-threatened species with natural dark hues ranging from reddish-brown to nearly pitch black. It has a medium-fine texture and actually surpasses ebony in hardness. Black palm, another non-threatened species, has a speckled appearance with lighter-brown streaks amidst its dark coloring. It’s another species that is unthreatened, making it especially sustainable. It is less dense and more susceptible to insect attacks, so for projects needing resistance, exploring other materials might be wise. A third option, black-dyed wood veneers, offers customizability and affordability. Typically, the base panels are made of a common lighter-colored hardwood, such as maple, oak or beech, that have undergone a dyeing process to replicate the deep black color of ebony.

Understanding the ecological implications of ebony wood and exploring sustainable alternatives is essential for responsible consumer choices and the protection of our natural resources.

CONTACTS: Forest Legality Initiative: Ebony, https://forestlegality.org/risk-tool/species/ebony; Ebony: Dark Outlook For Dark Woods, https://www.wood-database.com/ebony-dark-outlook-dark-woods/; Rare Woods USA: Katalox, https://www.rarewoodsusa.com/species/katalox/; Wood Database: Black Palm, https://www.wood-database.com/black-palm/.

Dear EarthTalk: Has the Biden administration been able to ramp up the development of wind power (especially offshore) as promised? -- Vera Wingate, via email

In 2021, President Biden pledged to cut U.S. fossil fuel emissions by 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, promising to build 30,000 megawatts of offshore wind by then, enough to power 10 million homes!

Several European and Asian nations have dabbled in offshore wind for decades, but the U.S. has yet to unleash its potential here. Offshore is preferable to onshore because of more frequent winds, higher wind speeds, lower transmission costs and more energy efficiency. Also, offshore creates many jobs. Biden’s plan could lead to employing more than 77,000 workers in and related to offshore wind by 2030.

Since Biden’s pledge, his administration has approved four commercial scale offshore wind projects. The first announced were the Vineyard Wind project off Massachusetts (May 2021) and the South Fork Wind projects off Rhode Island and New York (November 2021). Both projects are under construction and being built by union labor. This past July, Biden approved the largest offshore wind energy project yet in U.S. waters off the coast of New Jersey, approving up to 98 turbines, as well as three offshore substations to help transmit the electricity to shore. When completed, the New Jersey project could generate some 1.1 gigawatts which could power over 600,000 homes. It is projected to create over 3,000 jobs over its three-year creation period. This past August, another project off Rhode Island was announced. The project will have an estimated capacity of 704 megawatts of clean energy, capable of powering nearly 250,000 homes.

According to a White House Fact Sheet, the Biden administration is on track to review at least 16 offshore wind project plans by 2025. These could collectively power 6 million homes. By conducting thorough assessment of the potential impact on the environment, wildlife and local communities, the Biden administration is demonstrating its commitment to responsible and sustainable clean energy expansion.

However, the progress isn’t without challenges. For one, the intricate permitting process, involving multiple federal agencies, state governments and various stakeholders, can lead to lengthy delays. Also, opposition from various stakeholders, including local communities and environmental groups, can impede progress. Other issues include the high upfront costs and the low availability of offshore wind sites.

But the Biden administration is trying to speed up the process. They are streamlining the permitting process, making it quicker for offshore wind projects to gain approval. They are conducting thorough environmental assessments. They are investing in research to improve technology and reduce costs (they announced $72 million in funding to support research in September 2023). And they are providing financial incentives to encourage private investment in offshore projects. Overall, the administration is focused on reaching its clean energy goals and is making the most of offshore wind to help get there.

CONTACTS: Biden-Harris Administration Announces $30 Million from Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to Speed Up Wind Energy Deployment, www.energy.gov/articles/biden-harris-administration-announces-30-million-bipartisan-infrastructure-law-speed-wind; Biden-Harris Administration Approves Third Major Offshore Wind Project in U.S. Waters, www.doi.gov/pressreleases/biden-harris-administration-approves-third-major-offshore-wind-project-us-waters; Biden-?Harris Administration Announces New Actions to Expand U.S. Offshore Wind, www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/09/15/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-new-actions-to-expand-u-s-offshore-wind-energy/

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