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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of California's giant sequoias trees and what's being done to save them from extinction? -- M.L., Sacramento, CA

Giant sequoias, which can grow upwards of 300 feet tall with circumferences of 90+ feet around at ground level, are among the largest and longest living species on the planet today. Some are over 3,000 years old. But climate change, human activities and wildfires are threatening their very existence in their native habitat on the western slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.

Biologists estimate there are about 80,000 naturally occurring giant sequoias left there and worry that another bad wildfire year—like 2015, 2017 or 2020, when National Park Service biologists clad the lower flanks of the biggest trees with tin foil to deter the flames—could decimate those remaining trees.

Giant sequoias have evolved to withstand moderate fires, but the recent infernos, exacerbated by climate change, have been catastrophic. Not only do these fires destroy the trees directly, they also hinder the natural reproduction process by killing young sequoias and preventing seeds from germinating.

While fire has been the most immediate threat in recent years, climate change in general is altering the trees’ environment—and may be the final nail in their coffin. Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts and erratic precipitation patterns have weakened the trees, making them more susceptible to pests and disease, and disrupting the natural fire regime that they have depended on for regeneration for millennia.

To mitigate the impacts of climate change, researchers and conservationists are studying how these trees respond to changing environmental conditions. They are also implementing measures like controlled burns to mimic natural fire cycles and create a more suitable habitat for the sequoias.

Human activities, such as logging, urban development and recreation further exacerbate the challenges faced by giant sequoias. Urbanization around these groves disrupts their ecosystems, and recreational activities can harm their shallow root systems. Efforts are also being made to limit human impacts in sequoia territory. Strict regulations on logging, urban expansion and recreational activities near these groves aim to preserve the natural ecosystem and minimize disturbances to the trees.

Moreover, collaborative initiatives between government agencies, conservation organizations, and local communities are crucial for the long-term protection of these ancient giants. Public awareness campaigns, educational programs, and eco-tourism practices that emphasize responsible visitation also play a vital role in ensuring the survival of these magnificent trees. Whether or not our grandchildren will get to visit these giant sequoias may well depend on our ability to rein in carbon emissions here and around the world in time to stave off cataclysmic climate change. Indeed, the fate of these giant trees, as well as thousands of other plants and animals, hangs in the balance.

CONTACTS: Helping or hindering? US scientists debate how to save giant sequoias, https://phys.org/news/2023-09-hindering-scientists-debate-giant-sequoias.html; Save The Giant Sequoias, https://www.savetheredwoods.org/redwoods/fire/save-the-giant-sequoias/; The race to save ‘awe-inspiring’ giant sequoias, https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2023/08/the-race-to-save-awe-inspiring-giant-sequoias/.

Dear EarthTalk: Why is concrete production bad for the planet? Are there sustainable options?

-- James B., Milwaukee, WI

Concrete is undeniably one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation around the world, not just because it is used to pave over nature but also because of its huge production and distribution carbon footprint. Creating concrete involves extracting raw materials like limestone, which releases large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. And the production process is energy-intensive, requiring high temperatures at the factory and transportation of heavy materials for hundreds of miles.

Indeed, the concrete industry is responsible for a whopping eight percent of global CO2 emissions, making it one of the world’s worst climate villains. The chemical reaction involved in producing concrete generates nearly one ton of CO2 for every ton of concrete produced. These emissions significantly contribute to climate change, exacerbating global warming and its associated consequences. Moreover, the extraction of raw materials for concrete causes habitat destruction, landscape alteration, and can deplete water reserves and other natural resources. The demand for sand, a key component in concrete, has led to illegal and environmentally destructive mining practices around the world as well.

In response to environmental concerns, researchers and innovators are actively seeking more sustainable alternatives to traditional concrete. One promising alternative gaining traction is "green concrete” which uses alternative materials like fly ash, slag or silica fume as partial replacements for cement, concrete’s primary ingredient. Additionally, incorporating industrial by-products like recycled glass or plastic in the mixtures can enhance the final product’s sustainability. Advancements in technology have also led to the development of novel construction materials like geopolymer concrete, which relies on industrial waste by-products to create a durable, eco-friendly alternative. These substitutes often offer comparable or even superior performance to traditional concrete while greatly reducing carbon emissions during production.

Another sustainable approach involves exploring "biomimicry," drawing inspiration from nature to create materials that imitate natural processes. Some researchers are investigating the use of bio-based materials like hempcrete, made from hemp fibers and a lime-based binder, which possess impressive insulation properties and a smaller environmental footprint compared to conventional concrete.

Additionally, advancements in construction techniques, such as 3D printing using recycled materials, offer innovative ways to reduce waste and energy consumption in building construction. These methods have the potential to revolutionize the construction industry by minimizing resource extraction and energy usage while offering greater design flexibility. While these sustainable alternatives show promise, widespread adoption and implementation require further research, development, and investment to scale up production and make them economically competitive with traditional concrete.

The detrimental environmental impact of concrete requires urgent action. Exploring and investing in sustainable alternatives is crucial to mitigate the environmental damage caused by construction activities and pave the way for a more sustainable and eco-friendly future in the construction industry.

CONTACTS: The Concrete That Helps The Climate, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230309-how-carbon-negative-concrete-can-help-the-climate; Why Is Concrete So Damaging To The Environment? https://www.fairplanet.org/story/concrete-climate-change-environmental-injustice/

Dear EarthTalk: How is the Northern Spotted Owl—the once endangered poster bird for old growth forest conservation in the Pacific Northwest—doing these days? -- P. J., Seattle, WA

Distinguished by dark-brown white-speckled feathers, the Northern Spotted Owl was the symbol of conservation in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s. This period saw scientists and conservationists rallying against the rapid destruction of old-growth forests that the owl relied upon for survival.

In 1990, the U.S. government listed the species as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, leading to the establishment of “critical habitat” areas. Despite these measures, deforestation and resulting habitat loss have been shrinking the bird’s population by about 2.9 percent annually. In British Columbia, where these owls also once thrived, over 97 percent of the old-growth forests are now gone. And the increase in forest fires, worsened by rising global temperatures, has further reduced the shrinking habitat.

Furthermore, the emergence of an invasive species, the Barred Owl, has pushed the Northern Spotted Owls to the brink of extinction. Historically inhabiting East Coast forests, Barred Owls have expanded their range westward in the last 50 years, enabled by habitat changes, human activity and climate change.

Barred owls are generalists, consuming a variety of food ranging from small mammals to reptiles and even other birds. In contrast, Northern Spotted Owls are specialized, predominantly relying on small mammals, particularly flying squirrels and woodrats. Northern Spotted Owl pairs typically do not breed annually. When they do reproduce, they only lay one to two eggs and use large amounts of resources to invest in their roles as parents. The presence of barred owls has prompted Northern Spotted Owls to disperse from their preferred breeding territories, impacting their already limited reproductive habits.

Beyond protections against logging, Northern Spotted Owls would benefit from the prohibition of pesticides in areas surrounding their habitat. Recent studies in Washington, Oregon, California forests showed a presence of anticoagulant rodenticides (ARs). This raises concerns about the Northern Spotted Owls due to their rodent-heavy diets. Though some raise concerns over the ethics of lethally removing barred owls, studies show that the resulting reduction of competition for resources would help Northern Spotted Owls’ adult survival rates, breeding attempts, and reproductive viability.

Efforts to increase the wild Northern Spotted Owl population have been attempted with limited success. A Canadian program spent over 15 years diligently incubating eggs and hand-rearing chicks. In August 2022, the program released three captive-born male owls into a forest. However, by May 2023, two had died and another had been hit by a train and put into rehabilitation. Despite these disappointing results, scientists continue to improve their practices by studying other species of owls.

The Northern Spotted Owl faces a web of challenges from habitat loss to invasive species, but ongoing conservation efforts underscore a collective commitment to securing their survival.

CONTACTS: ‘It’s never too late’: Canada taken to court for near-extinction of spotted owls, https://thenarwhal.ca/spotted-owl-federal-court-case-guilbeault/; One left: British Columbia’s last chance on northern spotted owls, https://news.mongabay.com/2023/05/one-left-british-columbias-last-chance-on-northern-spotted-owls/; It’s the Moment of Truth for Saving the Northern Spotted Owl, https://www.audubon.org/magazine/fall-2022/its-moment-truth-saving-northern-spotted-owl.

Dear EarthTalk: What are the major public health impacts of climate change and what’s being done on the public health side to mitigate these risks? -- Jane Sherwood, Ocala, FL

Public health experts have worried about climate change for decades, but accelerated warming globally has now led to a reexamination of just how bad our greenhouse gas sins might be affecting our own health and well-being. More heat-related illnesses and infectious diseases, lower air quality, food and water insecurity, and a heightened risk of natural disasters are a few of the ways climate change is wreaking havoc on our mental and physical health.

Heat-related illnesses are a prominent concern. Rising temperatures amplify the rate and intensity of heatwaves, leading to heat exhaustion, heatstroke and aggravation of pre-existing conditions. Vulnerable people like the elderly, children and those with chronic illnesses, face heightened risks. A recent update to the Lancet Countdown, a yearly survey of climate change health impacts, found that global heat deaths could increase by 370 percent in coming years if we don’t significantly rein in carbon emissions. Infectious diseases find favorable conditions to thrive and spread due to changing climate patterns. Warmer temperatures expand the geographic range of disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks, resulting in the spread of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, Lyme disease and Zika virus. And changes in rainfall patterns and temperatures affect water and foodborne diseases, exacerbating public health risks.

Air quality worsens as climate change increases smog formation, triggers wildfires and increases pollen. These factors aggravate conditions like asthma and allergies, leading to more respiratory illnesses. Food and water insecurity arise from altered precipitation patterns impacting crop yields and water availability. Droughts, floods and extreme weather events disrupt food production, leading to malnutrition and shortages. Contaminated water sources from floods or poor sanitation lead to waterborne diseases.

Moreover, mental health is affected by the psychological toll of climate-related disasters, loss of livelihoods, displacement and a looming sense of uncertainty about the future. Anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorders are increasingly observed in affected communities.

It’s important to ID links between climate change and public health, but it’s another matter entirely to mitigate them. Policymakers are working on adaptive measures that seek to enhance public health systems to better cope with climate-related health challenges. These include improving disease surveillance, early warning systems for extreme weather events, and capacity building in healthcare facilities to handle increased patient loads. Meanwhile, government entities at every level need to implement climate-friendly policies and practices—heat wave preparedness plans, insect control programs, promoting sustainable practices for food and water security—in order to model good behavior for their constituencies.

Collaboration among various sectors is essential to tackling the complex intersection of climate change and public health. By implementing robust policies, fostering community resilience and prioritizing public health in climate action plans, we can build a healthier, more resilient future.

CONTACTS: The Lancet Countdown, https://www.thelancet.com/countdown-health-climate; EPA’s Understanding the Connections Between Climate Change and Human Health, https://www.epa.gov/climate-indicators/understanding-connections-between-climate-change-and-human-health.

Dear EarthTalk: What kinds of pollution do automobile tires cause? -- B.L., San Francisco, CA

Tire wear pollution was in the news recently after a group of Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to investigate a possible link between tire pollution and declining populations of wild coho salmon there. The tribes blame the chemical 6PPD, which has been used in motor vehicle tires for over six decades to make them more durable. It is also widely used in other rubber products such as footwear, synthetic turf and playgrounds. While it might make rubber stronger, 6PPD can react with ozone pollution in the air to form a byproduct called 6PPD-quinone. Stormwater runoff containing 6PPD-quinone inevitably runs off into streams and other water bodies during rain, when aquatic organisms are exposed to it. Concentrations of 6PPD-quinone in storm water in the Pacific Northwest were found to be lethal to coho salmon after only a few hours of exposure.

6PPD isn’t the only bad stuff coming off tires. Another is microplastics, also used to strengthen the rubber in tires but linked to a wide range of toxic effects that can make their way up the food chain to our dinner plates. Another major consequence of tire wear and tear is the release of airborne pollutants. When tires roll over roads, they generate friction, which leads to the production of tiny particles and chemical compounds that can become airborne. These pollutants can include fine particulate matter (PM2.5), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Particulate matter from tire wear is an especially concerning pollutant because it can be inhaled by humans and animals, causing respiratory problems and other issues. Fine particulate matter can also contribute to the formation of smog and haze, reducing air quality in urban areas. VOCs and PAHs emitted from tire wear can react with other pollutants in the atmosphere to create ground-level ozone, a key component of smog. Ground-level ozone is harmful to human health and can cause respiratory issues, especially in vulnerable populations, such as children and the elderly.

Tire wear and tear also pollutes water, and not only in salmon habitat. When it rains, the water washes tire particles into stormwater drains and eventually into rivers, lakes, and oceans. The runoff can contain not only microplastics but also a variety of chemicals used in tire manufacturing and those generated during tire wear. These chemicals may include heavy metals, such as zinc and cadmium, which can have toxic effects on aquatic life and disrupt ecosystems. Furthermore, the leaching of chemicals from tires into water bodies can lead to long-term contamination of aquatic environments.

Tiremakers are working on more durable and eco-friendly tire materials that emit fewer pollutants. To wit, low rolling resistance tires can help improve fuel efficiency and reduce both tire wear and associated pollution. Meanwhile, we can all help by getting maintaining our vehicles regularly and making sure the tires are inflated to recommended levels. Getting out of our cars altogether and walking, biking and taking public transit are also great ways to reduce reliance on cars and all the environmental evils they cause.

CONTACTS: After Salmon Deaths, EPA Takes Aim at Toxic Chemical Issuing from Car Tires, https://e360.yale.edu/digest/epa-tire-chemical-salmon-6ppd; Road Hazard: Evidence Mounts on Toxic Pollution from Tires, https://e360.yale.edu/features/tire-pollution-toxic-chemicals; Can tires turn green? https://cen.acs.org/environment/sustainable-tire-market/101/i17.

Dear EarthTalk: What are softbotics and how can this emerging field help us better understand animal evolution and achieve our conservation goals? -- James Penfield, Boone, IA

Soft robotics, AKA softbotics, an emerging field of robotics, is revolutionizing how we design and build machines. Unlike traditional rigid robots, soft robots are inspired by the flexibility and adaptability found in nature, such as in the movement of animals like octopi and worms. These robots are made from pliable materials that let them mimic the dexterity and agility of living organisms. This innovative technology is not only changing the landscape of robotics but also providing valuable insights into animal evolution.

At its core, soft robotics aims to replicate and harness the qualities of soft, living organisms to create robots that are better suited for complex, dynamic environments. Traditional hard, rigid robots are often limited in their ability to navigate and interact with unpredictable surroundings. Soft robots can bend, stretch, and deform, making them better equipped to handle real-world challenges.

In 2023, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Department of Mechanical Engineering, along with paleontologists from Spain and Poland, used fossil evidence to create a robotic replica of pleurocystitid, a marine organism that lived 450 million years ago and is thought to be one of the first echinoderms able to moving using a muscular stem. “We are building robot analogues to study how locomotion has changed," says lead researcher Carmel Majidi of Carnegie Mellon. “Many fundamental principles of biology and nature can only fully be explained if we look back at the evolutionary timeline of how animals evolved.”

The connection between soft robotics and animal evolution is evident when we consider how these robots are designed and built. Scientists and engineers draw inspiration from nature, studying the movement and behavior of animals to inform the design of soft robots. For example, an octopus' ability to squeeze through tight spaces and manipulate objects with its flexible tentacles has inspired the development of soft robots that can perform similar tasks, such as search and rescue missions in collapsed buildings.

Animals have evolved over the millennia to develop structures and behaviors that optimize their survival and reproduction. Soft robotics seeks to emulate these evolutionary solutions, creating machines that can perform tasks with a level of versatility and efficiency that was previously unattainable. Studying the biomechanics of animals like snakes, which move gracefully despite their lack of legs, has inspired the creation of serpentine soft robots that can navigate tight spaces and uneven terrain.

Soft robotics is not merely an attempt to mimic nature but a way to explore the principles that underlie the remarkable adaptations found in living organisms. This exploration can lead to breakthroughs in a wide range of applications, from medical devices to environmental monitoring and even space exploration.

One particularly exciting area of research is developing soft robots for use in ecological and wildlife studies. These robots can be designed to mimic specific animals, enabling researchers to observe and interact with wildlife in their natural habitats more unobtrusively. This has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of animal behavior and ecology by providing unprecedented insights into their lives.

CONTACTS: 450-million-year-old organism finds new life in Softbotics, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/11/231106202936.htm; Carnegie Mellon Softbotics, https://engineering.cmu.edu/softbotics/index.html;This Skin-like Robot Can Heal Itself, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/self-healing-robot-softbiotics/. 

Dear EarthTalk: Do mainstream laundry soaps contain chemicals that are bad for human health and/or the environment? Are any brands safer than others in this regard? – P.V., via email

For centuries, soaps made from natural substances were used to cleanse our skin and clothes. Synthetic detergents were developed in the early 20th century to create products that cleaned our laundry better and more conveniently. These days we may buy them based on a nice smell or how bright our clothes look, and take for granted that they are safe for us and for the environment.

Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Consumer Reports recently looked for potentially dangerous chemicals in several laundry detergents and found quite the selection of “nasties.” One of the worst is 1,4-dioxane, an industrial solvent that’s readily absorbed through the skin, lungs and gastrointestinal tract and is considered a probable human carcinogen. In 2022, New York State banned laundry detergents containing unsafe levels of 1,4-dioxane. Arm & Hammer Clean Burst, Tide Original and Gain Original + Aroma Boost are among those detergents no longer available in New York as a result.

Other common yet dangerous detergent ingredients to watch out for include: neurotoxin heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium and lead; phthalates that make fragrances last longer but disrupt the body’s hormonal systems; phosphorus that helps separate dirt from fabric but has links to negative human health effects including the aggravation of cardiovascular problems and osteoporosis; and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureate sulfate (SLES), scrubbing agents that can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs. Many common detergents contain synthetic dyes, fragrances and so-called “synthetic optical brighteners” that don’t actually clean but can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation and harm downstream wildlife.

Beyond the immediate health and environmental threats many of these synthetic chemicals pose, they also are not easily broken down over time and as such accumulate in the environment over decades. They can accumulate in water to toxic levels, affecting wildlife that is exposed, be carried by waterways or by water extraction for irrigation and can then get into food crops and animals. Like the pesticide DDT, the chemicals may accumulate in the body tissues of organisms living in polluted areas, but more crucially for us, in the body tissues of the top predators in food chains, which are in many cases...us.

New York's decision to ban these hazardous detergents is a significant step toward establishing a safer and healthier environment, and emphasizes the importance of selecting eco-friendly products. Cheri Peele of Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit that aims to reduce the use of dangerous ingredients in consumer products, urges consumers to “choose detergents with the U.S. EPA Safer Choice label.”

Boosting consumer awareness of this problem has become more mainstream recently. The Good Housekeeping Institute trialed some of the more eco-friendly brands. Its researchers gave high marks to Ecover, Smol, Splosh, Method and Bio D. Ecology Works produces a 100 percent biodegradable anti-allergen laundry detergent. Seventh Generation is also highly regarded as eco-friendly. Happy washing!

CONTACTS: How to Find an Eco-Friendly Laundry Detergent, https://www.consumerreports.org/appliances/laundry-detergents/how-to-find-an-eco-friendly-laundry-detergent-a8349611828/; Toxic-Free Future, https://toxicfreefuture.org; EPA Safer Choice, https://www.epa.gov/saferchoice

Dear EarthTalk: What are some apps that help individuals save the planet? – Robert E., via email

Most of us spend upwards of three hours on our smartphones every day. Much of our phone time is spent messaging friends and family, scrolling through social media feeds, watching video shorts and playing mindless games—but what if we could use it more productively to help save the planet? Not surprisingly, there are dozens of apps out there designed to solve environmental issues. Whether you want to cut your carbon footprint, reduce food waste, or save water, there’s an app (or two) out there for it.

One of the hottest sustainability-oriented apps out there these days is Too Good to Go, which

connects customers to restaurants and stores that have surplus unsold food that can be procured for significantly discounted prices. The Olio app works along similar lines—connecting neighbors with each other and with local businesses to share surplus food. Olio can be used to find new owners for your old non-food items as well, keeping more stuff in use and out of landfills.

Eco-conscious fashionistas can rejoice over how the Good On You app allows them to check on the sustainability records and ethical stances of more than 3,000 different fashion brands. The app is a great companion on clothes shopping excursions; you can look up different brands as you browse and make purchasing decisions accordingly. Over a million users worldwide also use the app to discover alternative ethical and sustainable fashion brands that they might not have ever heard about otherwise. Another app focused on the intersection of sustainability and fashion, ThreadUp, offers users the ability to quickly list used clothing items for sale so others can appreciate them. Who knew thrifting was actually eco-friendly?

If you’re worried about pollutants and irritants in your personal care and beauty products, Think Dirty might just be the app for you. Scan the barcode from any health and beauty product on the store shelf through the app and find out what ingredients are in it so you can determine whether or not to buy/use it.

Of course, there are lots of apps out there to help you reduce your carbon footprint. One of the most engaging is Oroeco. Use this app to track your life activities, such as what you eat, how you get around, etc. and see how much climate impact you have. You can also compete with other users—and earn badges—in friendly competitions to “gamify” your impact reduction efforts. Another favorite is Giki Zero, which provides users with a free and personalized guide—based on answers you provide about your lifestyle—on how to reduce your carbon footprint.

Saving water is becoming increasingly important in this warming-fueled drought-stricken age we are in now. The Waterprint app allows users to conveniently track their water usage and compete with friends. Users list the products they buy, and the water footprint of each product is then used to calculate their water usage. Competing with friends provides a strong incentive to reduce unnecessary water usage, which helps to improve water sustainability around the world.

Who knew that our smartphones could be such important tools for saving the planet?

CONTACTS: Olio, https://olioapp.com/; Good On You, https://goodonyou.eco; Think Dirty, https://www.thinkdirtyapp.com; Too Good to Go, https://www.toogoodtogo.com/; Waterprint, https://devpost.com/software/waterprint; Oreco, https://www.oroeco.org/.

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

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