Dear EarthTalk: What are some basic guidelines about seafood consumption, especially for women and in light of all the pollution threats to our oceans and waterways? — Betsy Draper, Boston, MA
Between mercury poisoning, overfishing and the environmental impacts of fish farms or “aquaculture,” some might expect to see a “Proceed with Caution” sign above seafood counters soon. Others contend that fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet, providing high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends eating up to 12 ounces of fish and shellfish per week, but only if they are “lower in mercury.”
Mercury can be released into the air through industrial pollution and can accumulate in streams and oceans. The FDA warns that if you regularly eat types of fish that are high in mercury, it can accumulate in your blood stream. They add that mercury is removed from the body naturally, but it may take over a year for levels to drop significantly. For this reason, women trying to become pregnant should avoid eating high-in-mercury fish like shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, and gravitate toward low-in-mercury shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.
According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Super Green List,” fish that are low in mercury and also good sources of especially healthy “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acids include Atlantic mackerel from Canada and the U.S., freshwater Coho salmon from the U.S., wild-caught Pacific sardines and Alaskan wild-caught salmon (fresh or canned).
Of course, it’s possible to obtain long-chain omega-3s without eating fish. Ovega-3s supplement is derived from a strain of algae that naturally produces high amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), the healthiest omega-3s. Although most people think fish are the original source of DHA and EPA, these omega-3s actually come from the algae lower in the food chain.
“When salmon farming began in North America, farmers discovered that without fish oil in their diet, farmed salmon did not contain salmon oil in their tissues,” says Udo Erasmus, Ph.D., author of Fats that Heal — Fats that Kill. “Fish get their ‘fish oil’ from the foods they eat. When we trace these supplement oils back to their origin, we find that the oils we call ‘fish oils’ are actually made by plants at the bottom of the food chain. One-celled red-brown algae make fish oils. Fish oils are actually plant-based products.”
Algae and other plant-based omega fatty acids also will not deplete the ocean’s supply of fish. Industrial overfishing practices have wiped out certain types of fish before they’ve had a chance to repopulate, and unintentionally killed other marine species besides fish — known as “bycatch” — in their large nets. Upwards of one million sea turtles, for example, were estimated to have been killed as bycatch from 1990-2008, according to a report published in Conservation Letters in 2010.
The transition to aquaculture, where fish are raised in confined quarters (like the “factory farming” of pigs, cows and chickens) has its own environmental burdens. According to the Mangrove Action Project, an estimated three million hectares of important coastal wetlands, including mangroves, have already been lost in order to make room for artificial shrimp ponds.
CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; Seafood Watch, www.seafoodwatch.org; Ovega, www.ovega.com. Photo caption: Wild salmon, high in “long chain” omega-3s, is one of the healthiest foods we can eat. Credit: Roddy Scheer, roddyscheer.com
Dear EarthTalk: I’ve been hearing a lot about the dangers of sunscreens. What is the latest on efforts to make them safer and more effective? — Phyllis Lothran, Tallahassee, FL
Greater awareness about what’s in everyday products and increased interest in healthy living means there has never been a better time to re-evaluate which sunscreens you use. The ingredients in some common chemical-based sunscreens are known to cause allergic reactions for some people and have been linked to reproductive and behavioral problems in animal studies. But luckily for the sun-safe and health conscious among us, there are lots of widely available all-natural, mineral-based sunscreen formulations that won’t cause any health problems on store shelves these days.
The most common non-chemical sunscreen ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which offer all-natural broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection that will not sting your eyes or cause a reaction in people with rosacea or dermatitis like chemical sunscreens can. Current mineral sunscreen formulations on the market do have their downsides, though. Powdered mineral sunscreens can be messy to apply, and their transparency can make it hard to tell if you have enough on to protect yourself. Liquid versions can feel thick and greasy compared to chemical varieties, and may also leave a white cast on skin and streaks on clothing or bathing suits. To eliminate the white cast issue, tinted moisturizers and cosmetic foundations with mineral sunscreens are now available in a wide variety of shades.
To find the sunscreen that’s best for you, you may want to check out free online databases like the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Sunscreens or Paula’s Choice Expert Advice on Sun Care.
“Many sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun and can contain toxic ingredients to boot,” says Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at EWG. “[The EWG Guide to Sunscreens] offers users much-needed, well-sourced information so they can make the right choices to protect themselves and their families.”
As soon as this coming summer, Americans may have access to new active sunscreen ingredients that could offer benefits like stronger UVA protection and longer lasting, more lightweight applications. Last November, President Obama signed the Sunscreen Innovation Act into law, which will push the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make quicker decisions on new sunscreen ingredients awaiting their approval.
Eight sunscreen ingredient applications have been pending FDA approval since 2002, though many of these ingredients are already used in sunscreens in Europe and elsewhere. The last sunscreen to get FDA approval was Mexoryl SX, a strong UVA filter, in 2006. Despite its availability in Europe since 1993, Mexoryl SX was approved in the U.S. exclusively for the high-priced La Roche Posay Anthelios SX sunscreen and no other formula.
“Many promising sunscreen ingredients have long been used in sunscreen products that are sold in other parts of the world, including the European Union and Canada,” says Scott Faber, EWG senior vice president. “It is about time Americans have access to the same products that others use to protect themselves from the dangers of sun exposure.” He adds that the FDA is expected to make decisions on some of the eight pending sunscreen ingredients within six months.
CONTACT: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org.
Dear EarthTalk: I am in the market for a new flat screen TV. Are some models greener than others? — Michael Kavanaugh, Rome, NY
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Americans’ 275 million TV sets burn through some 65 billion kilowatt hours of energy each year, representing 4-5 percent of U.S. household electricity consumption. Each U.S. household spends around $200/year for electricity to power their TVs and related equipment. But while we may not be giving up our TVs anytime soon, there is some light at the end of the tunnel, as the consumer electronics industry has started to prioritize reducing its environmental footprint.
While screen size has continued to increase, the overall mass of televisions is much smaller than back in the days of boxy cathode ray tube sets. And many new flat screen models (LCD, OLED or plasma) sport hyper-efficient screens that can be tweaked even further by the user to reduce their power needs.
Some of the energy-saving features that this new generation of greener TVs makes use of include screens back-lit by light-emitting diodes (LEDs), automatic brightness controls that adapt the picture to the light intensity of the room, “local dimming,” where sections of backlighting are dimmed or turned off when not needed, and the ability to pre-determine picture settings optimized to save energy. All of the major TV makers — Vizio, LG, Samsung, Panasonic, JVC, Sharp, Toshiba, Sony — now offer power-sipping models.
“Even though televisions are the most widely owned device in the U.S., with a 97 percent household penetration in 2013, their total annual electricity consumption dropped 23 percent from 2010,” reports the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the trade group for electronics manufacturers that puts on the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program certifies appliances, electronics and other energy-efficient consumer items to help Americans save money and protect the climate through saving energy. If you’re shopping for a new TV, start your search at EnergyStar.gov, where you can find and compare new models that are all at least 25 percent more energy efficient than conventional ones. The easy-to-use site allows you to check-off which brands, screen sizes, technology types, resolutions and other features you’re looking for before it serves up a list of matches complete with estimated energy use over a year.
The EPA reports that if every TV, DVD player and home entertainment system purchased in the U.S. this year qualified for an Energy Star label, consumers would keep some 2.2 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere, the equivalent of taking 200,000 cars off the road.
Of course, buying a new TV introduces another potential environmental hazard: that associated with the disposal of your old set. Throwing your old TV in the garbage where it will end up in a landfill is not only bad for the environment, given the risk of chemical and heavy metal leakage, it is also typically illegal. If you’re buying your new TV from a local store, ask them if they can take back your old set. Also, the CEA’s Greener Gadgets website provides an up-to-date list of resources to find out how to responsibly recycle old TV sets and other electronics directly with the manufacturers or through third-party recyclers.
Dear EarthTalk: What is being done to get toxic flame retardants out of children’s furniture and other products?
— Mary Sweetland, Seminole, FL
Putting flame retardants in furniture seemed like a good idea back in the 1970s to help protect against the risk of fire, but our insistence on safety has come back to haunt us. The chemicals “off-gassing” from these flame retardants can be toxic, especially to the kids they are meant to protect in the first place.
“Scientists have found that exposure to toxic fire retardant chemicals at critical points in development can damage the reproductive system and cause deficits in motor skills, learning, memory and behavior,” reports the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG). Some of these chemicals have even been linked to cancer.
Manufacturers started putting flame retardants into their products in the mid-1970s after legislators in California passed a law requiring polyurethane foam in furniture to resist catching fire after exposure to an open flame for 12 seconds. Given the importance of the California market and the fact that other states soon enacted similar requirements, adding flame retardants to furniture foam became standard practice across the country.
But a flurry of research in the early 2000s called into question both the effectiveness and safety of common flame retardants, and ever since environmentalists have been working hard to eliminate such questionable chemicals from our living rooms. In 2013, California finally updated its rule on flame retardants, replacing the old open flame test with a new smolder test that assesses the ability of the furniture covering — not the foam padding — to withstand catching fire. State regulators estimate that some 85 percent of furniture fabrics currently on the market can pass the new smolder test without the benefit of flame retardant chemicals. In addition, a wide variety of kids’ products, including car seats, play mats, highchair pads and infant mattress pads, are no longer required to contain flame retardants. Additionally, California now requires labels on upholstered furniture sold there detailing whether or not flame retardants are present.
Unfortunately, consumers outside of California will have to do their own research to steer clear of flame retardants. EWG suggests checking in directly with manufacturers to see if their products contain flame retardants, or limiting your shopping to retailers that specialize in so-called “organic” (read: chemical-free) furniture such as Elka Home, Furnature, Green Sofas, Eco Select Furniture and Viesso, among others.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), another leading non-profit active in the effort to ban toxic flame retardants, recommends replacing not just the fabric but also the foam during reupholster projects, as most foam manufactured before 2004 is likely off-gassing toxic chemicals. Likewise, NRDC says to be careful removing old carpeting, as the degraded scrap foam in the underlying padding can also release copious amount of noxious flame retardants.
Other ways to minimize flame retardant exposure include regular wet-mopping of the floors around the house and using a vacuum cleaner fitted with a HEPA filter. Consumers can also take a stand against toxic flame retardants by signing onto NRDC’s MoveOn.org petition calling on the U.S. Consumer Safety Product Commission to adopt a new nationwide standard to prevent the use of toxic chemicals in furniture foam and other everyday items.