Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the more dangerous threats to our air quality and what can be done to eliminate them so we can all breathe more easily? — Melanie Smith, Pomfret, CT
The main threats to local air quality across the United States (as well as most everywhere else) remain smog and particulate pollution, which combined or acting alone trigger millions of hospital visits and health complications for citizens every year. The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that almost half of all Americans live in counties where air pollution routinely reaches unhealthy levels and can therefore make people sick or exacerbate pre-existing health conditions.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) points to mobile sources (trains, planes and automobiles) as the greatest contributor to American air pollution, but industrial sources such as power plants and factories are not far behind. Regardless of which kind of pipe pollution comes out of, the end result is consistently bad air quality in the nation’s 22 largest metropolitan areas and beyond.
“Ozone develops in the atmosphere from gases that come out of tailpipes, smokestacks and many other sources,” reports ALA. “When these gases come in contact with sunlight, they react and form ozone smog.” Breathing in smog, while inevitable in certain urban and industrial areas, can irritate the cardiovascular system and cause other health problems.
As for particulate pollution, it too comes from a wide range of both mobile and stationary sources. “Burning fossil fuels in factories, power plants, steel mills, smelters, diesel- and gasoline-powered motor vehicles (cars and trucks) and equipment generates a large part of the raw material for fine particles,” explains ALA. “So does burning wood in residential fireplaces and wood stoves or burning agricultural fields or forests.” Chronic exposure to particulate pollution has been linked not only to cardiovascular issues but also to cancers and reproductive problems — and has been shown to contribute to premature death.
Fortunately, the Clean Air Act has gone a long way toward cleaning up the air we breathe across the U.S., reducing key air pollutants overall by a whopping 68 percent since it first became law in 1970. A recent study by EPA researchers showed that, in 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act prevented more than 160,000 premature deaths, 130,000 cases of heart disease and 1.7 million asthma attacks, not to mention 86,000 hospital admissions and millions of respiratory illnesses.
But even though four decades of Clean Air Act programs have already done a lot to improve our health, environment leaders and public health advocates alike would like to see lawmakers put in place even more stringent rules to reduce pollution of all kinds and put our economy on a cleaner, greener path overall.
As for what you can do, ALA recommends protecting yourself and your family by checking air quality forecasts in your community and avoiding exercising or working outdoors when bad air quality is expected. Also, steps you can take to improve local air quality — driving less, using less electricity, turning the thermostat down, etc. — will have the positive side effect of helping mitigate global warming. Who knew that reducing your carbon footprint could actually also help you breathe more easily too?
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on efforts to ban plastic bags? How many U.S. locales have instituted some kind of ban, and have these initiatives made a dent in the amount of plastic litter? — Melinda Clarke, New York, NY
California made big news recently when it announced the first statewide ban on plastic shopping bags set to kick in during the middle of 2015. Beginning in July, large grocery stores, pharmacies and other food retailers in the Golden State will no longer be able to send shoppers home with plastic bags, while convenience markets, liquor stores and other small food retailers will join the ranks a year later.
Back in 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. municipality to ban plastic shopping bags. In intervening years upwards of 132 other cities and counties in 18 states and the District of Columbia instituted similar measures. Of course, Americans are late to the party when it comes to banning plastic bags: The European Union, China, India and dozens of other nations already have plastic bag bans or taxes in place.
But the trend here toward banning plastic shopping bags comes in the wake of new findings regarding the extent and harm of plastic in our environment. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, it ends up either in landfills or as litter on the landscape and in waterways and the ocean. Plastic can take hundreds of years to decompose and releases toxins into the soil and water in the process.
Littered plastic is also a huge problem for the health of wildlife, as many animals ingest it thinking it is food and can have problems thereafter breathing and digesting. The non-profit Worldwatch Institute reports that at least 267 species of marine wildlife are known to have suffered from entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, most of which is composed of plastic; tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals and turtles die every year from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags. A recent European Commission study on the impact of litter on North Sea wildlife found that some 90 percent of the birds examined had plastic in their stomachs.
Another reason for banning plastic bags is their fossil fuel burden. Plastic is not only made from petroleum — producing it typically requires a lot of fossil-fuel-derived energy. The fact that Americans throw away some 100 billion plastic grocery bags each year means we are drilling for and importing millions of barrels worth of oil and natural gas for a convenient way to carry home a few groceries.
It’s hard to measure the impact of pre-existing plastic bag bans, but some initial findings look promising. A plastic bag tax levied in Ireland in 2002 has reportedly led to a 95 percent reduction in plastic bag litter there. And a study by San Jose, California found that a 2011 ban instituted there has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”
Environmental groups continue to push for more plastic bag bans. “As U.S. natural gas production has surged and prices have fallen, the plastics industry is looking to ramp up domestic production,” reports the Earth Policy Institute. “Yet, using this fossil fuel endowment to make something so short-lived, which can blow away at the slightest breeze and pollutes indefinitely, is illogical — particularly when there is a ready alternative: the reusable bag.”
Dear EarthTalk: A friend of mine recently stopped using skin and beauty products with parabens in them. What are parabens and should we all be avoiding them? — Betsy Johnson, Port Chester, NY
First commercialized in the 1950s, parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of health, beauty and personal care products. If the product you are using contains methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben, it has parabens.
These ingredients are added to deodorants, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and makeups, among other products, to stop the growth of fungus, bacteria and other potentially damaging microbes. Researchers have also found that some 90 percent of typical grocery items contain measurable amounts of parabens, which is why even those who steer clear of potentially harmful personal care products also carry parabens around in their bloodstreams.
What worries public health advocates is that while individual products may contain limited amounts of parabens within safe limits set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), cumulative exposure to the chemicals from several different products could be overloading our bodies and contributing to a wide range of health problems. “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity,” reports the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells.” Research has shown that the perceived influx of estrogen beyond normal levels can in some cases trigger reactions such as increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.
CSC cites a 2004 British study that detected traces of five parabens in the breast tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied. “This small study does not prove a causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer, but it is important because it detected the presence of intact parabens — unaltered by the body’s metabolism — which is an indication of the chemical’s ability to penetrate skin and remain in breast tissue.” According to the group, a more recent study found higher levels of one paraben, n-propylparaben, in the axilla quadrant of the breast where the highest proportion of breast tumors is found. CSC reports that parabens have also been linked to reproductive, immunological, neurological and skin irritation problems.
Health advocates are pressuring the FDA to ban parabens in products sold in the U.S. — like the European Union did in 2012 — but concerned consumers must take matters into their own hands for now by reading product labels and avoiding products with parabens.
“Many natural and organic cosmetics manufacturers have found effective alternatives to parabens to prevent microbial growth in personal care products,” reports CSC. “Some companies have created preservative-free products that have shorter shelf lives than conventional products (six months to a year), but if used daily are likely to be used up before they expire.” Readers can check out Breast Cancer Action’s list of over 100 cosmetics and personal care product makers committed to avoiding parabens in their products. Also, see if your favorite products contain parabens or other risky ingredients via Environmental Working Group’s free online “Skin Deep” database.
Dear EarthTalk: How is it that some food purveyors are contributing to the destruction of tropical rainforests by ditching unhealthy “trans fats?” — Billy S., Salem, OR
Most public health advocates applaud efforts by processed food producers, restaurants and fast food chains to get rid of so-called “trans fats” — partially hydrogenated oils added to foods to improve texture and extend shelf life but which can aggravate heart disease. In 2013 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) proposed eliminating trans fats altogether, but it is unclear if and when such a change will take effect. In anticipation, many big trans fat buyers have switched to palm oil, much of which comes from former tropical rainforest lands cleared for agricultural production across Southeast Asia.
“The concern is that a lot of companies will switch to palm oil in order to reduce trans fats without thinking more broadly about the health and environmental implications of that,” says Bill Barclay, Policy and Research Director at the non-profit Rainforest Action Network (RAN).
Palm oil may be a good substitute for trans fats in that it stays solid at room temperature and is therefore useful as a food additive in things like snack bars. But it isn’t much healthier: A 2009 study by the federal Agricultural Research Service found that palm oil “would not be a good substitute for trans fats by the food industry” because consuming either type of fat results in similar spikes in artery-clogging LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and a protein (apolipoprotein B) that distributes it throughout the bloodstream.
Meanwhile, the explosion in palm oil use over the past few decades for biofuels and as a food ingredient and additive has wreaked havoc on tropical rainforest ecosystems across Southeast Asia. Environmental leaders are concerned that even more demand for palm oil could push some endangered species — including orangutans, Sumatran tigers and pygmy elephants — over the brink. “They’re losing critical habitat that threatens their survival and that’s largely driven by palm oil expansion,” says RAN’s Barclay.
Higher carbon emissions are another down side. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the tropical peat soils that predominate in Southeast Asia rainforests store huge amounts of carbon. Clearing and draining these fields to create palm oil plantations releases this carbon into the atmosphere.
Green groups continue to work with palm oil producers and the governments that regulate them to promote more sustainable production and processing and toughen standards for conversion of land to agricultural use, but progress has been slow. A recent commitment by five of the world’s largest producers and traders of palm oil to stop clearing “critical forest areas” for one year during a study is a step in the right direction, but there’s no telling whether other producers will step up their own expansion efforts to fill the void, let alone what kind of ramped up production will happen when the study is complete.
And while food scientists are working on other alternatives to trans fats that could be greener and healthier, none are as a cheap-to-produce and easy-to-process as palm oil, at least for applications requiring a food product to sit on store shelves at room temperature. The best thing we as consumers can do to keep our arteries and our consciences clear is to dial back our consumption of foods that include palm oil or any other trans fat alternatives. Indeed, there’s never been a better time to put down those packaged baked goods and processed snacks altogether.