EarthTalk: What can I do, as just one individual,
to help curb global warming?
-- Karen Cross, via e-mail
of our own direct contributions to global warming pertain
to the modes of travel we choose. For starters, air travel
burns more fossil fuels per person than any other form of
transport. So if you can opt for other forms of long-distance
travel, you can reduce your contribution of greenhouse gases
significantly--provided, of course, that at least a planeload
of others are doing the same.
The other main offender in the transportation arena is the
private automobile. Driving less frequently, carpooling, and
using public transport such as buses and rail can take a big
bite out of the greenhouse gases and pollution you are personally
responsible for. Also, think about all those short car trips
you take where a brisk walk or bicycle ride might do the trick
and provide some needed exercise in the process.
When driving is a necessity, though, always make sure your
vehicle is properly tuned and that the tires are properly
inflated, so as to conserve fuel. If you are contemplating
the purchase of a new car, consider one of the many offerings
of gas-sipping hybrids, which often come with tax incentives,
now on the market.
At home, you can fight global warming by buying energy-efficient
appliances and keeping older ones serviced, as inefficiencies
translate into energy waste. And simply minimizing heating
and cooling in the home can reduce your individual contribution
to climate change while also lowering monthly bills. In cold
weather, dress warmly and sleep with warm blankets; in warm
weather, dress lightly and open the windows to create drafts;
when you go out, turn heat and air conditioning down or off.
Insulating and weather-stripping your house is another great
way to reduce energy use. And if your utility offers check-off
options for renewable power sources like wind or solar, opt
for them, even if it costs a buck or two--a small price to
pay for a healthy planet. And plant a few trees in the backyard.
Over their lifetimes they'll remove tons of carbon dioxide
that would otherwise contribute to global warming.
Cutting back or eliminating meat and dairy from one’s
diet is another great way to fight climate change, while also
keeping healthy. Cows used for meat and milk are continuously
fed in order to maximize their productivity, and as a result
they continually emit methane as they digest. According to
Noam Mohr of the non-profit EarthSave, methane gas is 21 times
more powerful a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide coming
out of our tailpipes. Given the massive proliferation of livestock
around the globe, these industries are major contributors
to global warming. Also, switching from supermarket-based,
energy-intensive processed foods that must be shipped long
distances to food grown locally can reduce one’s greenhouse
gas contribution even more than by switching from a gas-powered
mid-size car to a hybrid.
Various climate-related websites, including CarbonFootprint.com
and TerraPass.com, offer free online “carbon footprint
calculators” so individuals can see and even calculate
how their actions contribute to global warming. SafeClimate.net
helps businesses of all sizes take action on climate change.
CONTACTS: EarthSave, www.earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm;
Carbon Footprint, www.carbonfootprint.com;
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walk to the store will do you good--while keeping climate-altering
greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere.
Are the flame-retardants used in many products as a fire
safety precaution dangerous to our health? If so, what can
I do to avoid contact with them? -- Katya, via e-mail
Flame-retardants are in widespread use in both the U.S. and
Canada, primarily in carpet padding, foam cushions, polyester
bedding and clothing, wallpaper, and the plastic housings
for computers, faxes and other electronics. Most are made
from variations of a chemical known as PBDE, which stands
for polybrominated diphenyl ether.
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology (WSDE),
in laboratory studies some PBDEs have been shown to cause
problems in rodent brain development. “Most of these
problems stem from pre-natal exposure and exposure soon after
birth. The health effects appear to be permanent,” says
WSDE. They are quick to point out, though, that levels in
humans have not (yet) reached the levels that cause problems
in lab animals, but that scientists are concerned because
the levels in humans keep rising.
PBDEs are “persistent” in that they don't break
down but remain active in our air, water, soil and food. WSDE
says that PDBEs are building up in animals throughout the
food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound
in Washington and in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.
PBDEs also stay in our bodies, accumulating in our fatty tissue.
The U.S. is the world’s largest maker and user of PBDEs,
and levels found in Americans are as much as 100 times higher
than in Europe, where most PDBEs were banned in 2001. North
American levels, say scientists, are doubling every two to
five years. Primarily, human exposure has been through eating
fish, though babies can be exposed by drinking mother’s
milk. Children are also exposed when they wear polyester pajamas
treated with flame retardant. Indeed, PDBE chemicals easily
“off-gas” from the very products they are designed
to make safe.
Consumers can take precautions and avoid products that contain
PBDE. Among other cautions, the Healthy Children Project recommends
buying clothing, bedding and furniture made from natural fibers,
such as cotton and wool, which do not melt near heat and as
such do not need to contain flame-retardants.
Another way to minimize exposure is to stick to a diet low
in animal fat, since the chemicals accumulate in larger amounts
in animals higher up the food chain. Joyce Newman of the Green
Guide recommends vegetables, fruits and whole grains over
meat and fish. When choosing meat and fish, she suggests cutting
away as much of the fat as possible, and choosing leaner cuts
As for consumer goods, WSDE says that industries need to re-think
their product designs whereby highly flammable materials are
avoided and ignitable materials are separated or shielded
from heat sources. Some mattresses in use now in nursing homes
and hospitals, for example, employ a “barrier layer”
of durable material between surface fabric and interior foam
and meet stringent fire safety standards without the use of
chemicals. But until the Canadian and U.S. governments begin
to take PBDE dangers more seriously, it will be up to individual
consumers to look out for the health of their children and
CONTACTS: Washington State Department of
Ecology’s “Toxic Flame Retardants: The Buzz on
Healthy Children Project, www.healthychildrenproject.org;
The Green Guide, www.thegreenguide.com.
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