EarthTalk: What are the major issues
with protecting migratory birds that groups like the Nature
Conservancy are working on?
—Lorinda Bennet, Albuquerque, NM
birds face many threats, including human development
that displaces wetlands, hunting, obstructions like
offshore oil rigs — and climate change, which
is affecting migration cycles and breeding patterns.
Pictured: The Sooty Shearwater, which migrates 9,000
miles between nesting sites in the Falkland Islands
and feeding sites in the North Atlantic Ocean.
© Mike Baird
birds, like other animals, need suitable habitat and food
sources to survive. But unlike other animals which stay
primarily in one place, migratory birds depend on the availability
of food and habitat all along their migration paths, which
for some are thousands of miles long. Changing environmental
conditions along routes can hinder birds’ ability
to survive their often arduous long distance journeys.
1,800 of the world’s 10,000 bird species migrate long
distances every year. Typically birds fly to the far north
in the summer to feed and return south for the winter to
breed, but many variations and exceptions exist. The long-distance
record holders are Sooty Shearwaters, which migrate 9,000
miles between nesting sites in the Falkland Islands and
feeding sites in the North Atlantic Ocean off of Norway.
among environmental threats to migratory birds is habitat
destruction. Human development of wetlands areas leaves
many birds without suitable habitat for stopovers and even
wintering sites. Global warming only twists the knife by
making usual stopover sites even less hospitable. Biologists
see that widespread climate change is already starting to
have a negative effect on the timing of migration cycles
and breeding patterns, leading to population declines in
species already considered threatened. Hunting is another
threat to birds which pass over countries without the resources
or will to enforce protections. Obstructions such as power
lines, wind farms and offshore oil rigs also negatively
affect migratory birds.
large number of international treaties and domestic laws
provide protection for migratory birds. For example, the
Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 affirms the U.S. government’s
commitment to international conventions protecting migratory
birds (and their eggs and nests) passing through Canada,
Japan, Mexico and Russia at some point during their annual
travels. Upwards of 1,000 different bird species, as listed
on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Migratory
Bird Program website, are protected under this Act. A similar
treaty called the African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbird Agreement
seeks to protect migratory birds along another of the world’s
major migratory bird flyways.
governments only do so much to protect migratory birds,
private non-profits are working hard—and devoting
millions of dollars—to try to take up the slack. One
of the leaders in this battle is the Nature Conservancy,
which employs hundreds of ornithologists and planners who
identify networks of habitats needed by bird species throughout
North America, Latin America and the Caribbean and then
work to protect these crucial areas for current and future
generations of migratory birds.
projects focus on important ecosystems, from the grasslands
of the Great Plains to the pine oak forests of Central America
and points beyond, identifying and protecting a network
of high-quality stopover habitats around the Gulf of Mexico
as well as along the Pacific Coast of the U.S. and Canada—and
studying how climate change and other environmental factors
affect bird migration throughout the Western hemisphere.
U.S. Fish &
Wildlife Service’s Migratory Bird Program; Nature
Conservancy’s Migratory Birds Program.
EarthTalk: Isn’t spray sunscreen a health
and environmental nightmare when it seems that more of the
sunscreen ends up going up my nose than on the kid at the
beach next to me?
—Lillian Robertson, Methuen, MA
Environmental Working Group recommends avoiding
spray sunscreens entirely. With so little known
about the effects of sunscreen chemicals on the
body when rubbed into the skin, they say, we may
never know how much worse the effects may be when
they are inhaled.
Spray cans of
sunscreen may no longer contain chlorofluorocarbons (also
known as CFCs, which were phased out in the 1990s for causing
holes in the stratospheric ozone layer), but many contain
other chemicals that are no good for our health or the environment.
Researchers have found that the chemicals and/or minerals
in the vast majority of commercially available sunscreens—even
the rub-in creamy or oily varieties—can cause health
problems just from ordinary use; inhaling them only magnifies
And just what
are the risks? According to the non-profit Environmental
Working Group (EWG), there are two major types of sunscreens
available in the U.S. “Chemical” sunscreens,
the more common kind, penetrate the skin and may disrupt
the body’s endocrine system, as their active ingredients
(e.g., octylmethylcinnamate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, benzophone,
mexoryl, PABA or PARSOL 1789) mimic the body’s natural
hormones and as such can essentially confuse the body’s
systems. Quite a risk to take, considering that the chemical
varieties don’t even work for very long once applied.
sunscreens are considered somewhat safer, as their active
ingredients are natural elements such as zinc or titanium.
But “micronized” or “nano-scale”
particles of these minerals can get below the skin surface
and cause allergic reactions and other problems for some
people. EWG recommends sticking with “mineral”
sunscreens whenever possible but, more important, taking
other precautions to avoid prolonged sun exposure altogether.
“At EWG we use sunscreens, but we look for shade,
wear protective clothing, and avoid the noontime sun before
we smear on the cream,” the group reports.
As for spray
varieties, EWG recommends avoiding them entirely: “These
ingredients are not meant to be inhaled into the lungs.”
With so little known about the effects of sunscreen chemicals
on the body when rubbed into the skin, we may never know
how much worse the effects may be when they are inhaled.
But suffice it to say: When your neighbor at the beach is
spraying down Junior, it’s in your best interest to
turn away and cover your nose and mouth.
The root of the
problem, according to EWG, is failure on the part of the
U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), despite repeated
requests from public health and consumer advocates, to implement
sunscreen safety standards, some of which were proposed
by government scientists more than three decades ago.
EWG only considers
a small percentage of the sunscreens on the market—none
of which come packaged in spray cans—safe for human
use. Some of the top rated varieties come from manufacturers
including All Terrain, Aubrey Organics, Badger, Blue Lizard,
California Baby, La Roche-Posay, Purple Prairie Botanicals,
thinksport, and UV Natural. None of the mainstream drug
store variety brands appear on EWG’s recommended list.
The full list is available on the sunscreens section of
EWG’s Skin Deep website. With summer now upon us,
stock up on good sunscreen before it’s too late.
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