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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: What will be the effect of all the flooding along the Mississippi River for organic farmers, given all the pollutants in the water? When they recover, can they still certify their products as organic?
—Michael O’Loughlin, Tigard, OR

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn't allow any flooded out crops –- organic or otherwise –- to be sold or consumed by people, due to potential exposure to sewage, animal waste, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants. Pictured: An aerial view of farms flooded alongside the Mississippi River.

Photo © Lance Cheing, U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr

The combination of record floods and record numbers of organic farms has led many to wonder about the safety of even our organic groceries. Luckily for Americans, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a policy in place to govern how farmers respond to such situations and how affected crops and fields are handled to ensure that consumers continue to have access to healthy and safe food.

For one, the FDA doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people. The agency considers “ready to eat crops…that have been in contact with flood waters to be adulterated due to potential exposure to sewage, animal waste, heavy metals, pathogenic microorganisms or other contaminants.” Given that there is no known method of “reconditioning” such crops that would “provide a reasonable assurance of safety for human food use,” the FDA instructs farmers to dispose of them “in a manner that ensures they do not contaminate unaffected crops during harvesting, storage or distribution.” So-called “adulterated” food can be seized and violators prosecuted under federal law.

Of course, many farms affected by floods have other fields that remain unaffected. The FDA recommends a 30 foot buffer between flooded areas and fields that can still yield edible food. Also, farm equipment shouldn’t be driven through or exposed to flooded areas (or their affected crops) to minimize the risk of contamination. As to when farmers, organic or conventional, can replant fields inundated with floodwaters, the FDA suggests waiting at least 60 days to ensure contaminants aren’t still in the soil.

No discussion of organic farming and flooding is complete without mention of global warming. Italian researchers analyzed runoff data recorded in the Swiss Alps to study how flood risk varies with temperature, precipitation and elevation in mountainous regions. They reported in the January 2010 edition of the journal Geophysical Research Letters that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, and that large floods have occurred more frequently in recent years than in the past.
Furthermore, they predict global warming will result in such floods occurring more often in the future. If global temperatures increase by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, as many scientists expect, so-called “hundred-year-floods” could occur every 20 years or so, putting untold numbers of people at risk. Global warming is also responsible for more frequent and more intense storms that can cause widespread flooding.

The good news is that farming organically is one way to stave off global warming. Research at the Rodale Institute found that “organic farming helps combat global warming by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide and incorporating it into the soil, whereas conventional farming exacerbates the greenhouse effect by producing a net release of carbon into the atmosphere.” And Cornell University researcher David Pimentel found that organic farms use 63 percent of the energy used by same-size conventional farms, which rely on large amounts of nitrogen fertilizer produced synthetically with large amounts of energy.

CONTACTS: Geophysical Research Letters; “Global warming increases flood risk in mountainous areas”; Rodale Institute; “Organic and Conventional Farming Systems: Environmental and Economic Issues”.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain the 2010 Safe Cosmetics Act? What does it purport to do and has it been signed into law?
—Megan Wilson, Austin, TX

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has only limited say in what cosmetics manufacturers can and cannot put into their products. And the cosmetics industry has essentially been regulating itself for some three decades. But critics argue that self-regulation isn't appropriate for an industry trading in potentially carcinogenic products.

Photo © Jupiter Images/Thinkstock

The Safe Cosmetics Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2010 by Democrats Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. But it never got past committee reviews and thus never came up for a vote.

The proposed bill aimed to ensure that all personal care products for sale in the U.S. would be free of harmful ingredients and that all ingredients would be fully disclosed. The bill would’ve given the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the authority to prohibit the use of certain ingredients, including carcinogens and reproductive and developmental toxins, to recall products that fail to meet safety standards, and to require product labels to name each ingredient.

The FDA has only limited say in what cosmetics manufacturers can and cannot put into their products. And the cosmetics industry has essentially been regulating itself for some three decades, and would like to keep it that way. In response to failed efforts in the 1970s to force the FDA to regulate cosmetics more like drugs—with required pre-market safety assessments—the industry decided to take matters into its own hands, creating the Cosmetics Industry Review Panel to judge the safety of various ingredients.

Critics argue that self-regulation isn’t appropriate for an industry trading in potentially carcinogenic products. “It’s a panel funded by the trade association,” Stacy Malkan of the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics told the Washington, DC-based Corporate Crime Reporter. “For 30 years that they have been in operation, they have only looked at about 13 percent of the chemicals in cosmetics. They do cursory reviews. They look mostly for short term health effects. It’s a panel of mostly dermatologists, not toxicologists. So, they don’t have the expertise to be looking at long-term health effects like cancer.”

Another non-profit, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), has identified upwards of 100 different products that passed Cosmetics Industry Review Panel safety assessments despite obvious violations of that body’s own guidelines. According to EWG’s research, 22 percent of all personal care products on store shelves today—including children’s products—may contain a cancer-causing ingredient (1,4-Dioxane), while some 60 percent of sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a potential hormone disruptor.

In response to the government not requiring cosmetics manufacturers to be more responsible, EWG launched the Skin Deep website, an easy-to-use, keyword-searchable database of cosmetics and their health risks and environmental footprints. The idea behind the website is to let users decide for themselves which cosmetics to purchase; EWG hopes that making this information freely available and easy-to-access will help drive demand for safer products.

Supporters of the Safe Cosmetics Act were hopeful that passage of their bill would usher in a new era of more rigorous mandatory screening of cosmetics here at home, and leadership in a global marketplace hungry for safer, greener products. Advocates for safe cosmetics hope that lawmakers will muster the resolve to reintroduce the bill, or another like it, in the current or some future session of Congress.

CONTACTS: FDA; Campaign for Safe Cosmetics; Corporate Crime Reporter; Skin Deep.

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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