EarthTalk: How is it that flushing cat litter
down the toilet has negatively affected sea otters? What
is the responsible way to dispose of cats’ waste?
-- Margo Boss, San Dimas, CA
to Dr. Melissa Miller of the California Department of Fish
and Game, cat feces can contain Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite
that gets into feline systems from the eating of infected
rodents, birds or other small animals. When cats later expel
these parasites in their droppings—sometimes hundreds
of millions at a time—each can survive in soil for
over a year and also contaminate drinking water.
municipal sewage treatment systems are not designed to filter
out Toxoplasma, and so the parasites also get into storm
drains and sewage outflows that carry them out to near-shore
ocean waters. Here, researchers have found, sea otters prey
on mussels, crabs and other filter feeders that can concentrate
Toxoplasma. Hundreds of sea otters have been found dead
on California beaches in recent years with no obvious external
injuries, and Miller and other scientists think that Toxoplasma
may be the cause.
are other possible culprits, too, including toxic algae
blooms caused by urea, an ingredient in fertilizer, and
the plethora of other man-made pollutants that end up in
ocean waters. But California’s legislature last year
nonetheless passed a bill to protect sea otters, in part
by requiring that all cat litter sold in the state carry
a warning label advising cat owners to not flush cat litter
or dispose of it in storm drains.
can also cause health problems for people, especially those
with compromised immune systems (such as AIDS patients).
While not typically fatal in humans, Toxoplasmosis, as the
disease is called, can also cause birth defects, blindness
and/or brain damage in children born to infected mothers.
best way to avoid the infection is to use plastic gloves
when changing the litter box and to wash hands thoroughly
afterwards. It is also advisable to stay away from raw or
undercooked meat and uncooked or unwashed vegetables that
may have been contaminated by manure (although felines are
the parasites’ primary host, other warm-blooded animals
and birds can also be carriers). Toxoplasmosis doesn’t
normally spread from person to person (with the exception
of pregnant women, who can pass it on to their fetuses),
but in rare instances it has contaminated blood transfusions
and organs donated for transplantation.
what’s a responsible cat owner to do about dumping
the contents of their cat’s litter box? According
to Dr. Patricia Conrad, a veterinarian and parasitologist
at the University of California at Davis who has studied
Toxoplasma contamination in sea otters, cat owners can start
by keeping their cats inside, where they are not able to
hunt the small animals that can pass Toxoplasma along to
them in the first place. (Bird lovers have been requesting
this for years.)
cat owners unwilling to keep their cats inside should do
their part by at least not flushing cat litter or cat feces
down the toilet. Cat fecal material should be placed in
double plastic bags and included in the household trash.
As such it will end up in the landfill where precautions
are taken to prevent environmental contamination.
Killing California Sea Otters?”; “Parasite
in Cats Killing Sea Otters”.
EarthTalk: How can we get schools to offer
healthier and more eco-friendly cafeteria food to our kids?
I don’t have time to bag a healthy lunch every day.
-- Leslie Morris, Richmond, VA
Now that many
schools have stopped selling sodas and other unhealthy vending
machine items to their students, improving the nutritional
quality of cafeteria food is on the agenda of many parents
and school administrators. And luckily for the environment,
healthier food usually means greener food.
schools are leading the charge by sourcing their cafeteria
food from local farms and producers. This saves money and
also cuts back on the pollution and global warming impacts
associated with transporting food long distances. And since
many local producers are turning to organic growing methods,
local food usually means fewer pesticides in kids’
Alarmed by childhood
obesity statistics and the prevalence of unhealthy foods
offered to students in schools, the Center for Food and
Justice (CFJ) in 2000 spearheaded the national Farm to School
lunch program. The program connects schools with local farms
to provide healthy cafeteria food while also supporting
local farmers. Participating schools not only obtain food
locally, they incorporate nutrition-based curriculum and
provide students with learning opportunities through visits
to the local farms.
Farm to School
programs now operate in 19 states and in several hundred
school districts. CFJ recently received significant support
from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to expand the program to
more states and districts. The group’s website (link
below) is loaded with resources to help schools get started.
The U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) also runs a Small Farms/School Meals
program that boasts participation in 400 school districts
in 32 states. Interested schools can check out the agency’s
“Step-by-Step Guide on How to Bring Small Farms and
Local Schools Together,” which is available free online.
Other schools have taken the plunge in their own unique
ways. In Berkeley, California, noted chef Alice Waters holds
cooking classes in which students grow and prepare local
organic fruits and vegetables for their peers’ school
lunch menus. And as documented in the film, “Super
Size Me,” Wisconsin’s Appleton Central Alternative
School hired a local organic bakery that helped transform
Appleton’s cafeteria fare from offerings heavy on
meat and junk food to predominantly whole grains, fresh
fruits and vegetables.
Of course, parents
can ensure that their children eat well at school by forgoing
the cafeteria offerings altogether and sending their kids
to school with healthy bag lunches. For on-the-go parents
unable to keep up with a daily lunch making regimen, innovative
companies are beginning to sprout up that will do it for
you. Kid Chow in San Francisco, Health e-Lunch Kids in Fairfax,
Virginia, New York City’s KidFresh and Manhattan Beach,
California’s Brown Bag Naturals will deliver organic
and natural food lunches to your kids for about three times
the price of a cafeteria lunch. But prices should change
for the better as the idea catches on and more volume brings
to Schools; USDA
Small Farms/School Meals Initiative; Kid
Chow, Brown Bag Naturals; Health
e-Lunch Kids; Kidfresh.