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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: I know that large fish contain a lot of mercury, but where does it come from? And what are we doing to prevent this contamination?
—Alison Bronner, Atlanta, GA

Once mercury gets into the marine food chain, mostly from human industrial sources such as coal-fired electricity generation, smelting and the incineration of waste, it “bioaccumulates” in the larger ocean predators like the bluefin tuna pictured here.

Photo © iStock/Thinkstock

Mercury in the fish we like to eat is a big problem in the United States and increasingly around the world. Mercury itself is a naturally occurring element that is present throughout the environment and in plants and animals. But human industrial activity (such as coal-fired electricity generation, smelting and the incineration of waste) ratchets up the amount of airborne mercury which eventually finds its way into lakes, rivers and the ocean, where it is gobbled up by unsuspecting fish and other marine life.

Once this mercury gets into the marine food chain, it “bioaccumulates” in the larger predators. That’s why larger fish are generally riskier to eat than smaller ones. Those of us who eat too much mercury-laden fish can suffer from a range of health maladies including reproductive troubles and nervous system disorders. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that human fetuses exposed to mercury before birth “may be at an increased risk of poor performance on neurobehavioral tasks, such as those measuring attention, fine motor function, language skills, visual-spatial abilities and verbal memory.” Up to 10 percent of American women of childbearing age carry enough mercury in their bloodstreams to put their developing children at increased risk for developmental problems.

In partnership with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the EPA issues determinations periodically in regard to how much mercury is safe for consumers to ingest from eating fish. State and tribal environmental authorities and/or health departments issue fish consumption advisories for water bodies in their respective jurisdictions based on federal guidelines. The EPA consolidates these local and regional advisories on its website, where concerned consumers and fisher folk can click on a map of the states to find out which advisories may be in effect in their area.

As for which fish to avoid, the non-profit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which runs the handy Seafood Selector website, reports that people with mercury concerns should steer clear of bluefin tuna, walleye, king mackerel and marlin. Bluefish, shark, swordfish, wild sturgeon, opah and bigeye tuna carry a proportionately large mercury burden as well. Also of concern, but to a slightly lesser extent, are orange roughy, Chilean sea bass, blue crab, lingcod, Spanish mackerel, spotted seatrout, wahoo, grouper, snapper, halibut, tile fish, rock fish and sable fish, as well as blackfin, albacore and yellowfin tuna.

Beyond what individuals can do to avoid mercury, the U.S. government and states have begun working together to reduce mercury emissions from power plants. Earlier this year the EPA proposed new “Mercury and Air Toxics Standards” regulating mercury emissions from utilities across the country, with the goal of reducing the amount of mercury emitted by coal burning by 91 percent by 2016. Elsewhere, representatives from 140 countries signed on to reduce global mercury pollution at a 2009 United Nations Environment Program’s Governing Council meeting in Nairobi, Kenya. The agreement commits signatory countries—including the U.S.—to cutting back on the use and emission of mercury. A legally binding treaty mandating just how much each country will have to cut back mercury emissions takes hold in 2013.

CONTACTS: EPA Mercury and Air Toxics Standards; EDF Seafood Selector.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that gas furnaces cost less to run and burn cleaner than their oil counterparts? If I make the switch, how long should I expect it to take for me to pay back my initial investment? And are there any greener options I should consider?
—Veronica Austin, Boston, MA

Natural gas is both cheaper and has lower carbon emissions than oil but its green-friendliness is overstated.

Photo © iStock/Thinkstock

It is true that natural gas has been a more affordable heat source than oil for Americans in recent years. The federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that the average American homeowner will pay only about $732 to heat their home with gas this winter season (October 1 through March 31) versus a whopping $2,535 for oil heat. While the price of natural gas has remained relatively stable in the last few years, oil prices have been high and rising thanks in large part to continued unrest in Middle Eastern oil producing countries. Just two years ago the average winter home oil heating bill was $1,752.

While oil prices are likely to remain high and volatile in the foreseeable future, most energy analysts agree that pricing for natural gas, much of which is still derived domestically, is not expected to rise or fluctuate substantially in the U.S. any time soon. According to EIA economist and forecaster Neil Gamson, the U.S. already has a glut of natural gas and expects even more domestic production to come online soon as drillers are set to open up the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York to more gas development.

Only about eight percent of U.S. homes are on oil heat today. Most are in the Northeastern U.S. and were built back in the day when oil was the cheapest way to keep toasty through the long winters. Many utilities have since put gas lines into neighborhoods that didn’t have them in the past, opening the door for homeowners to switch out old inefficient oil furnaces for more efficient gas units.

The federal government’s 30 percent tax credit (capped at $500) for upgrading to a high efficiency furnace expires at the end of 2011 but will likely be extended in one form or another into 2012. In the meantime, some states, municipalities and utilities offer their own incentives and low-interest loans on upgraded, high-efficiency furnaces. Check what’s available in your area via a zip code or map-based search online at the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). Regardless of incentives, gas furnaces tend to cost less than their oil counterparts anyway, but installing one from scratch will incur an extra thousand dollars or two to run a gas line to it from the street. If natural gas continues to be substantially cheaper than oil, the fuel cost savings alone would pay back the up-front equipment and infrastructure investment within five years in most cases.

Environmentally speaking, gas has lower carbon emissions than oil, but hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”)—the highly controversial gas extraction method increasingly employed today (drillers inject water, sand and chemicals at high pressure underground to break through rock and access the natural gas)—takes a heavy toll on surrounding ecosystems and regional water quality. Most environmental advocates would rather see people transition to truly renewable heating sources like geothermal or solar. If you’re going to the cost and trouble of switching out an oil furnace for something new, a geothermal heat pump may cost more ($7,500 and up) than a new gas heating system but will save big bucks and emissions in the long run. For those in reliably sunny areas, a solar heating system will cost even more up front but can deliver similar long term economic and environmental benefits.

CONTACTS: EIA; DSIRE.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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