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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: Are the plastic tiers on food steamers safe for food and for re-heating? Some indicate they are made from #7 plastic. I am very interested in buying a steamer, but not if they are unsafe. What’s the best way to go?
—Jim Lichlyter, Jr., Valley Center, KS

Even though a plastic food steamer may be marked “BPA-free,” there's no guarantee it won't leach other endocrine disrupting chemicals into food or drinks. Consumers might want to just play it safe and opt for food steamers made of tried and true plastic-free materials, like glass, stainless steel or bamboo.

Photo © Wen-Yan King/Flickr

While you may never know for sure whether the plastic parts in a food steamer will contribute to health problems down the road, why gamble? Plastic marked with a #7 recycling symbol—signifying mixed sources (polycarbonate) or otherwise hard-to-classify plastics (such as acrylonitrile styrene or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene)—is considered one of the riskiest in terms of chemical exposure. Polycarbonates are the most common types of plastic in items marked #7. And any of these three “feedstocks” just mentioned could contain Bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical in widespread use since the 1930s to harden plastic.

Researchers have found that exposure to BPA, a known “endocrine disruptor” that can mimic the body’s natural hormones, can lead to neurological and reproductive problems. As a result, public health advocates recommend not using containers marked with #7 for storing, heating or serving food/drinks so as to minimize the amount of BPA in our bloodstreams. Keeping BPA out of our bodies is an uphill battle: A recent study found that 96 percent of pregnant women in the U.S. have at least trace amounts of BPA in their systems already (and probably the rest of us do as well).

In response to increased consumer awareness about the potential risks of exposure to BPA, many bottle and container makers are now marketing versions of their plastic products that are BPA-free—and the trend has extended to food steamers, with several now available in BPA-free versions, including Oster’s 5712, Black & Decker’s HS1050, and Big & Fast’s Plastic Electric Food Steamer. Buyers beware: Even some BPA-free steamers have non-stick surface made from PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene, better known as Teflon), another hazardous chemical that health advocates recommend avoiding.

But to complicate matters further, a July 2011 study by a group of Texas-based researchers and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that just because a plastic product is marked “BPA-free” doesn’t guarantee that it won’t leach other endocrine disrupting chemicals—what the study refers to as “estrogenic activity” or “EA”—into food or drinks: “Almost all commercially available plastic products we sampled—independent of the type of resin, product or retail source—leached chemicals having reliably detectable EA, including those advertised as BPA free,” the researchers reported. In some cases, BPA-free products released greater amounts of estrogenic chemicals than even products known to contain BPA.

In light of all this, consumers might want to just opt for food steamers (and food storage and preparation items) made of tried and true plastic-free materials like glass or stainless steel. Some highly rated non-plastic, non-Teflon food steamers include Secura’s 3-Tier Stainless Steel Food Steamer ($90), Miracle Exclusives’ Stainless Steel Rice Cooker and Vegetable Steamer ME81 ($70), and World Cuisine’s 4-quart Red Enamel Cast-Iron Steamer with a tempered glass colander and a tempered glass lid ($220). And don’t forget: You can save yourself some money and kitchen storage space by just getting an inexpensive metal steamer basket, collapsible insert or bamboo steamer, available at any cookware store for less than $20.

CONTACT: Environmental Health Perspectives, Environmental Health Perspectives.

 
 

 

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in regard to putting limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.? Is there any hope that Obama can get something done?
—Bradley Johnson, Helena, MT

Politics still stand in the way of efforts to limit U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Two efforts, the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES) of 2009 and the American Power Act of 2010, got tabled or failed to make it to the Senate floor for a vote. ACES was, however, passed by a narrow margin in the House of Representatives, the first time the legislative branch has called for sweeping climate legislation.

Photo © Rachel Johnson/Flickr

Our best hope to date was 2009’s American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), a bill that called for the implementation of a “cap-and-trade” system to limit carbon dioxide emissions by capping overall emissions and allowing polluters to buy or sell greenhouse gas pollution credits—similar to what the European Union has been doing since 2005 to successfully reduce its own emissions—depending upon whether they were exceeding established limits or had succeeded in coming in below them.

According to the bill, U.S. businesses needing to pollute more could buy emissions credits on the open market; those able to reduce emissions could sell their pollution credits on the same trading floor. Thus there is a built-in incentive to reduce emissions: If you exceed pollution limits you have to keep buying costly credits; and if you can get below limits you can profit from the sale of credits for the difference.

Among the bill’s key provisions was a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions below 2005 levels by 2020, with a mid-century goal of an 80 percent reduction. Also, billions of dollars would have gone to initiatives bolstering green transportation, energy efficiency and related research and development. The bill was approved by the House in June 2009 by a narrow 219-212 vote. But Senate Democrats decided they didn’t have enough votes to get a version of the bill passed, and tabled the discussion.

While ACES may not have made it into the law books, its passage by the House was significant as it represented the first time the legislative branch called for sweeping climate legislation. Also, the bill’s provisions served as a guideline for U.S. negotiators heading to Denmark later in 2009 for the COP15 international climate talks (although in the end nothing binding was agreed upon there).

Then, in May 2010 Senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman unveiled their own cap-and-trade climate bill for the Senate. Dubbed the American Power Act, it aimed to reduce overall U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by similar amounts as ACES. But with the nation still reeling from the effects of BP’s Gulf oil spill—the American Power Act include provisions for offshore drilling—and Senate Republicans leery of any climate legislation, the bill failed to make it to a floor vote. Some point the finger at a handful of Democratic Senators from coal-producing states for not supporting their party colleagues. Others say Obama wasn’t advocating strongly enough despite his campaign rhetoric on the topic.

“The best one could plausibly hope for in the next Congress, assuming only modest Republican gains, is some sort of weak cap on utility emissions, possibly with some weak oil saving measures, though that would still require Obama to do what he refused to do under more favorable political circumstances—push hard for a bill,” writes commentator Joe Romm of Think Progress, a liberal political blog. Romm adds that it’s inconceivable to think the next Congress would even contemplate strong climate or clean energy legislation “without Obama undergoing a major strategy change and taking a very strong leadership role in crafting the bill and lobbying for the bill and selling it to the public.”

CONTACTS: ACES; Think Progress.

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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