Dear EarthTalk: How can we keep our kids safe from environmental hazards all around us in our everyday lives? — Jennifer Nichols, Wareham, MA
Children are affected by the same environmental hazards as adults, only they’re more vulnerable, given their smaller size and the fact that their bodies are still developing. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), harmful exposures can start as early as in utero.
“Proportionate to their size, children ingest more food, drink more water and breathe more air than adults,” reports WHO. “Additionally, certain modes of behavior, such as putting hands and objects into the mouth and playing outdoors can increase children’s exposure to environmental contaminants.”
Some of the most common contaminants we should be vigilant about avoiding include pesticides (in foods), lead (in old paint), asbestos (in insulation and construction materials), BPA (in plastic food/drink containers and the lining of cans), PFCs (in non-stick cookware, carpeting and mattresses) and flame retardants (in furniture and drapery). And, of course, many branded household cleaners contain potentially hazardous ingredients (bleach, ammonia, diethanolamine, triethanolamine) as well.
Given how common these elements are in today’s world, keeping kids safe isn’t an easy task. For starters, choose organic food and drink whenever possible to cut down on the pesticides your kids ingest. While pesticides work well to keep away the bugs that can ruin harvests, they also can cause neurological and reproductive problems for humans who ingest traces of them. Apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens are the worst offenders in the produce aisle, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), so definitely spring for organic versions of these particular fruits and veggies. Packaged and processed foods likely contain plenty of pesticide residues, too, unless they are marked as certified organic.
To avoid household cleaners, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) recommends ditching the expensive specialized products that likely contain harmful chemical additives. “A few safe, simple ingredients like soap, water, baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice and borax, aided by a little elbow grease and a coarse sponge for scrubbing, can take care of most household cleaning needs.” Look for specific formulations on organicconsumers.org, as well as links to some environmentally friendly name-brand household cleaners.
While there is less we can do individually about air pollution if we want our kids to spend time outdoors, at the macro level we can all help by driving our cars less and turning down our thermostats (to reduce the emissions we cause) and ordering less stuff online (to cut down on air pollution from shipping).
Parents, teachers and caregivers should educate themselves about what to avoid and become expert label readers so they can make health-smart choices. Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is urging pediatricians to take a greater interest in the environmental impacts on the health of their patients and discuss with parents how to keep kids safe in and around the home, the neighborhood, and at school.
Dear EarthTalk: What are planners and designers doing to solve the so-called “last-mile” problem regarding transit? — Ginny R., via e-mail
Solving the “last mile” (or “first-mile”) problem — that is, getting transit riders from their bus stop, train station or ferry terminal “the last mile” to the doorstep of their home or workplace — has plagued urban planners since the dawn of public transportation.
“Most people in the United States are ‘comfortable’ walking less than a quarter mile to or from public transit stops,” says Alex Gibson of TransLoc, which works on solutions to transit problems using app-based technologies. “The problem arises when a potential rider is further than a ‘comfortable distance’ to the necessary fixed-route stop.”
Widespread suburbanization across the U.S. is part and parcel of the problem, given that fewer and fewer of us now live within walking distance to public transportation options. The result is more private cars on the road (and the accompanying carbon and air pollution) and underutilized public transit systems.
So, what can be done to overcome this last-mile hurdle? Some municipalities and counties run feeder buses that circle the ‘burbs and bring riders right from their homes or a nearby corner to a transit hub. Likewise, Uber, Lyft and other ridesharing services can help transit riders fill in this gap, especially in a pinch. But these are hardly the most cost- or energy-efficient fixes to the last-mile problem.
One time-tested solution is bicycles. Many regions have stepped up their commitment to installing more bike lanes accordingly. While a bike, either the traditional kind or one of the new battery-assisted models, works fine if you have somewhere safe to lock it up or can bring it inside, folding bikes may be a better option for “intermodal” commuters (who pair biking with a bus or train or ferry). Hip London office workers swear by their folding Bromptons. Another increasingly viable option is hopping on a pay-as-you-go share bike which you can pick up in one part of town and drop off in another. Beyond bikes, e-scooters — check the Stigo E-Scooter and Segway’s new MiniPro — are gaining traction and market share across the country.
And let’s not forget about the oldest last mile option of all: walking. Denver, Nashville and Los Angeles have made strides in fixing infrastructure to encourage transit riders to go the extra mile on foot. “Because most riders in high ridership systems walk to catch buses and trains, transit stops must be supported by well-designed streets and sidewalks,” reports the Transit Center, a foundation that supports transit reform advocacy. “Yet, many cities in America have built streets without sidewalks, or allowed property owners to encroach on or neglect them.”
Even more important than spiffing up sidewalks would be macro-level changes to how municipalities manage development. “Transit-oriented development and zoning changes are other highly effective strategies that put more people within walking distance to transit,” reports Angie Schmitt of StreetsBlogUSA. “Removing barriers to walking and transit-oriented development are likely to yield better ridership and financial return on investment than others designed to draw transit riders from suburban environments–the transportation equivalent of swimming upstream.”
Dear EarthTalk: You hear a lot about greener cars these days, but what about airplanes? — John Caldwell, Lorton, VA
While it may be the fastest and most convenient way to go long distances, air travel remains the most environmentally unfriendly mode in our mix of transportation options. Airplanes require massive amounts of petroleum-based fuel that deposits greenhouse gas emissions directly into the atmosphere (where they’re two to four times more potent in causing global warming than equivalent ground-level emissions). The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that aviation is responsible for some 3.5 percent of human-caused global warming to date and expects that figure to grow to somewhere in the 5- to 15-percent range by 2050, if we don’t take action soon to curb emissions.
Fortunately, the aviation industry hasn’t been hiding its head in the sand. New planes coming off assembly lines at Boeing and Airbus, the world’s two biggest jet manufacturers, are about 15 percent more efficient than previous models. Deploying next generation engines that can produce more thrust with less fuel is one way in which airplane makers are boosting efficiency. Another is through the use of lighter materials, with carbon fiber replacing metal in many applications and 3D printing of lightweight titanium parts taking the place of forged or machined aluminum.
Better design is also contributing to the optimization of fuel efficiency. One example is the winglet, a small vertical projection retrofitted on the tip of the wing that can cut emissions some six percent by reducing drag. Less than 20 percent of the world’s jets have them now; spreading the technology widely could significantly boost the overall fuel efficiency of aviation.
We can expect to see even more dramatic gains when so-called blended wing-body (BWB) designs go mainstream. Thanks to their broader wings and the resulting higher “lift-to-drag” ratio, these futuristic planes are significantly more aerodynamic than conventional jets. The Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), a non-profit focusing on sustainable development in aviation, reports that these BWB-design planes can go as far and as fast as conventional jets on 75 percent of the fuel. But don’t hold your breath: Researchers don’t expect BWB planes to be ready for commercial use for another two decades.
There is also considerable R&D going into greening the fuel side of the equation. Illinois-based General Biomass, for instance, is developing carbon-neutral jet fuel formulations derived from the seed oil of jatropha and camelina plants. And Texas’s Neste is a leader in developing “recycled jet fuel” made from the residue of used diesel fuel.
And as in the auto industry before it, aviation is now abuzz with talk of hybrid-electric and all-electric planes. Seattle-based Zunum Aero plans to have a prototype of its hybrid-electric 19-seater commuter plane ready for test flights by 2020, and hopes to start supplying airlines soon thereafter with commercial-grade models. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley’s Wright Electric is collaborating with Europe’s easyJet in developing a new battery-powered aircraft designed for short hop commuter routes. These new all-electric planes, which should be ready for prime time within a decade, will be 10 percent cheaper for airlines to buy and operate than traditional jets — and without the emissions stigma.
Contacts: IPCC, ipcc.ch; Boeing, boeing.com; Airbus, airbus.com; ATAG, atag.org; General Biomass, generalbiomass.com; Neste, neste.com; Zunum Aero, zunum.aero; Wright Electric, weflywright.com; easyJet, easyjet.com.
Dear EarthTalk: I know what C Corporations, S Corporations and LLCs are, but what are “B Corporations” and how does this status help the environment? — Robert Gendarme, Chicago, IL
C Corporations, S Corporations and LLCs are legal business structures distinguished by how they pay their taxes under U.S. federal income tax law, whereas a B Corporation (or “B Corp,” with the “B” standing for “Benefit”) isn’t actually a legal entity and is still taxed based upon its chosen C, S or LLC structure.
“B-Corp” is a certification awarded by the non-profit B Lab to for-profit companies which meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability and transparency. “B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk,” reports B Lab, which has certified upwards of 2,100 companies from 50 countries and across 130 industries. To qualify as a B Corp, a company must be working primarily to solve an environmental or social issue through its work as a business entity.
B Lab launched in 2006 with the first B Corp certification of 19 companies coming a year later. The non-profit began lobbying efforts across the country in 2008. In 2010 Maryland passed the nation’s first B Corporation Law, followed closely by California in 2011. When Patagonia and 11 other well-known California companies registered as B Corps on the first day possible in January 2012, major national news outlets covered the story, putting the B Corp concept “on the map,” so to speak. And later that year, the movement went global when companies in Africa and Brazil became certified B Corps.
“I think B Corp…will allow the values of my company to continue, even after it’s sold and it’s way down the line and we’re dead,” says Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, adding that he compares it to a conservation easement on a piece of property. “It’s a conservation easement on a business.” Besides Patagonia, some of the better-known companies now certified as B Corps include Ben & Jerry’s, Etsy, Warby Parker, Plum Organics, New Belgium Brewery, Stonyfield Farm, King Arthur Flour, Cabot Cheese, Badger and Seventh Generation.
Today 33 U.S. states recognize Benefit Corporation status while six more — Alaska, Georgia, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Oklahoma — are considering it. Companies that want to pursue B Corp status should check whether it’s recognized in their state by looking it up on benefitcorp.net’s state-by-state status page. If the answer is yes, the next step is taking B Lab’s “B Impact Assessment,” which assesses the overall impact a company has on its stakeholders, including a heavy emphasis on sustainability and environmental considerations. The assessment takes two to four hours to complete depending on company size, sector and location. Several of the questions concern sustainability issues such as energy efficiency, waste and pollution mitigation efforts. For instance, one of the assessment questions asks: “What percent of energy (relative to company revenues) was saved in the last year for your corporate facilities?”
Companies that qualify must then revise their articles of incorporation so that managers and directors can start factoring in how their decisions affect all stakeholders, not just financial shareholders, while recertification every two years requires that companies maintain that commitment to all stakeholders in order to keep their status.
Contact: B Lab, www.bcorporation.net