EarthTalk® | April 2016


Dear EarthTalk: How is it that big game hunting can actually be good for wildlife? — Ronnie Wilson, Ft. Myers, Florida

When Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer killed Cecil, a much-loved wild 13-year-old black-maned lion, with his bow and arrow in July 2015 outside a protected section of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, animal advocates were outraged. The University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit team had been studying Cecil and his family — protected as long as they stayed within the invisible borders of the park — at the time. In response to the extensive media coverage and public fury following the incident, Delta, American and United airlines announced in August that they would no longer allow hunters to transport big game trophies, including buffalo, elephant, leopard, lion or rhino, on their flights.

Cecil’s death also helped draw attention to big game hunting and its effects on wildlife populations and their ecosystems. Globe-trotting big game hunters imported more than 1.26 million “trophies” — the part of the animal they keep for display — to the U.S. between 2005 and 2014, according to a new report by Humane Society International (HSI). That’s an average of 126,000 trophy imports a year, or 345 a day.

But hunting proponents found the sudden backlash over Cecil’s death unsubstantiated. Dr. Alan Maki, conservation chair at the prominent hunting group, Safari Club International (SCI), argued that, considering that Africa’s human population is projected to double to two billion in the next 25 years, more and more land will be needed to support this growth, resulting in lots of lost wildlife habitat. Safari hunting, a $200 million annual industry, provides substantial value to wildlife, he said, by paying for anti-poaching patrols, national park operations and conservation programs that support local communities.

“We’re too busy showing everyone what great hunters we are, and we’re not doing enough to show what kind of conservationists we are,” says Ivan Carter, an African hunting guide and host of Carter’s W.A.R. on the Outdoor Channel. “We have to change the perception that we are just trophy killers and we’ve got to focus on the fact that we’re conservationists, and we do that by having and sharing the right information and research, and taking the time to post properly on social media.”

Of course, not everyone agrees that trophy hunting is benign, let alone beneficial. HSI maintains that widespread corruption in some of Africa’s most sought after big game destinations means that money raised from trophy hunting in places like Tanzania and Zimbabwe is more likely used to line officials’ pockets than to help ailing wildlife populations. (This unavoidable corruption was part of the reason Kenya banned trophy hunting altogether within its borders some four decades ago.) HSI also points out that trophy hunting may be more about ego-stroking than conservation, with wealthy American hunters willing to pay top dollar to compete in contests to kill the most wildlife for awards (such as the “Africa Big Five” that includes lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards and Cape buffalo).

HSI, which has published several reports detailing the negative effects of trophy hunting on wildlife populations, is working to get additional airlines to refuse passage to hunting trophies, and has helped introduce legislation to Congress calling for a ban on the importation of large animal trophies altogether.

While it appears that the debate is not going to be settled anytime soon, animal advocates maintain that upholding laws protecting species does much more to protect animals than killing them ever can.

Contacts: Oxford Wildlife Conservation Research Unit,; SCI,; Carter’s W.A.R.,; HSI, Photo above: Wildlife activists were outraged when a Minnesota dentist shot Cecil, a 13-year-old black-maned lion who had wandered just outside of a protected area in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park last summer. Credit: Vince O’Sullivan, FlickrCC.

Non-GMO Project
Since the U.S. does not require food producers to label products containing genetically-modified organisms, the non-profit Non-GMO Project has taken matters into its own hands and released its own certificatoon label for the industry.
Dear EarthTalk: Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) really so bad for us and the environment, and given their prevalence in our food supply already, how can I avoid them? — Dianne Mercurio, Richmond, VA

Unless you only buy foods that are certified organic or marked as “GMO-free,” odds are that a great deal of the food you eat contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But are you risking your health and damaging the environment by eating GMOs? Not according to Monsanto, the agricultural biotechnology company that is a leading producer of GM seed. Monsanto contends that GMOs are safe to eat and that seeds with GM traits have been tested more than any other crops in the history of agriculture — with no credible evidence of harm to humans or animals.

The company also points to studies that have positively assessed the safety of GMOs, including the 2010 European Commission report summarizing the results of 50 research projects addressing the safety of GMOs for the environment, as well as for animal and human health. In announcing the report, the Commission stated that “there is, as of today, no scientific evidence associating GMOs with higher risks for the environment or for food and feed safety than conventional plants.”

Of course, not everyone agrees. According to the non-profit Non-GMO Project, genetically modified crops and food items can contaminate conventional crops and foods through cross-pollination and/or contamination. Also, since many GM crops are designed to be immune to herbicides and pesticides, farmers have increased their use of various weed and bug killing chemicals to keep competition for their cash crops at bay. The resulting overuse of these chemicals has led to a rapid evolution of “super weeds” and “super bugs” that can quickly take over unmaintained or wild lands.

Given the prevalence of GMOs in our food supply already, the non-profit Just Label It believes labeling everything that contains GMOs would be a start, so at least consumers can choose on their own what they put in their bodies. Some 64 countries around the world — including China, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Russia and 28 nations in the European Union — currently require labeling on foods created with GMOs. Just Label It is one of many activist voices calling on the United States to follow suit. The group has created an online petition so everyday Americans can let the U.S. Food & Drug Administration know that they have the right to know what’s in their food, especially when it comes to GMOs.

But until we have federal rules in place requiring labeling, concerned consumers will have to take matters into their own hands when it comes to ferreting out the GMO content of what they eat. Luckily the Non-GMO Project is helping make it easier by offering verified products the opportunity to display its “Non-GMO” symbol on their labels. Currently the group has verified some 35,000 food products across 1,900 different brands commonly available on U.S. store shelves as GMO-free, representing annual sales topping $13.5 billion. Meanwhile, Whole Foods has stepped up its support of GMO labeling by instituting a new policy of “full GMO transparency” in all of its North American stores by 2018.

Beyond just labeling, though, Whole Foods is also working with many of its suppliers to transition to ingredients from non-GMO sources altogether. Activists hope that this leadership will trickle down to mainstream grocers as well.

Contacts: Monsanto,; Non-GMO Project,; Just Label It,; Whole Foods,

3D printe
3D printers could revolutionize manufacturing, but at what cost to human health and the environment? Credit: Creative Tools, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What are the health and environmental risks of using a 3D printer to make stuff? — Will Nady, Pittsburgh, PA

As with most inventions, the thrill of the new has led to mass excitement surrounding 3D printing. The booming industry is expected to grow from nothing just a few years ago to some $4 billion by 2025. But some worry that our enthusiasm for 3D printing may be overshadowing some troubling health and environmental issues associated with the new technology.

3D printers heat plastic (usually a solid thermoplastic filament such as ABS or PLA) into a liquid and force it through a heated extrusion nozzle which in turn deposits it in thin layers onto a moving bed to form figures in predetermined shapes. But this process can send potentially harmful ultrafine particles (UFPs) and toxic fumes composed of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air surrounding the machinery where users can breathe them in. In industrial settings, proper ventilation systems would be required and workers would have to wear protective gear to minimize exposure to similar UFP and VOC levels, but nowadays anyone can buy or borrow a desktop 3D printer and use it at home or in school without taking any extra precautions. One study, as reported on, equated the effects of printing a small 3D item to smoking a cigarette indoors. Effects can include nausea and headaches, particularly for those with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

A fully enclosed 3D printing system could mitigate exposure issues, but the major 3D printer manufacturers have yet to license the valuable patent held by one company to make this technology widely available. Until then, it’s up to users to make sure to operate desktop 3D printers in a well-ventilated area. Also, PLA, which is made from organic material such as corn starch or sugar cane, seems to be a safer choice than petroleum-based ABS as far as fumes are concerned.

Besides the health effects, 3D printing can also be problematic for the environment. For starters, the plastic in 3D print material deteriorates significantly with each use, rendering recycling out of the question at this point. Another environmental hazard of 3D printing is the clear spike in electrical energy needed for the heating process. Using heat or lasers to melt plastic costs drastically more than traditional methods. When compared to injection molding, a 3D printer consumes almost 100 times the amount of energy on average to make an equivalent item.

On the plus side, 3D printing is an “additive” technology, meaning it only uses the exact amount of plastic source material needed, so little if any is wasted. Also, 3D printed objects tend to be much lighter than their traditional counterparts; this saves money, fuel, and carbon emissions when it comes to shipping. But critics maintain that the weight savings isn’t enough to counteract the energy intensity of the 3D printing process.

Whether we like it or not, 3D printing is here to stay, but only time will tell if the growing industry behind the phenomenon will be able to clean up its act as it enters mainstream.

Contacts: “Ultrafine Particle Emissions from Desktop 3D Printers,”; “Emissions of Ultrafine Particles and Volatile Organic Compounds from Commercially Available Desktop Three-Dimensional Printers with Multiple Filaments,”; “How Toxic are ABS & PLA Fumes?”

cookware with non-stick coating
Environmental and health advocates worry that cookware with non-stick coating can release potentially danerous perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) into the air when used over high heat. Credit:
Dear EarthTalk: I’m in the market for a new set of non-stick cookware for my kitchen, and I’m wondering which type is healthiest? — Rose Castillo, Santa Fe, NM

Non-stick cookware cleans very easily and some health-conscious cooks appreciate that it requires less cooking oil than uncoated varieties. But the convenient cooking surface comes with potential risks when it is used with high heat. At temperatures exceeding 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the synthetic fluoropolymer coating in Teflon non-stick cookware begins to break down and release toxic perfluoroalkyl substances into the air.

The Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested how quickly three different non-stick pans (lightweight, medium and heavy) heated up to 500ºF. Scrambled eggs cooked on medium heat for three minutes in a lightweight pan peaked at a safe 218ºF, but all three pans heated on high reached temperatures above 500ºF in less than five minutes. The cheapest, lightest pan of the three got there in under two minutes. Even with oil added, the cheapest pan surpassed the 500ºF mark in two and a half minutes. Cooking steak in a lightweight non-stick pan yielded a pan temperature exceeding 600ºF in less than 10 minutes. At temperatures of 660°F and above, non-stick coated pans may emit fumes strong enough to cause polymer-fume fever, a temporary flu-like condition with symptoms such as chills, headache and fever. While the fumes aren’t fatal to humans, they can kill pet birds.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit focused on health and the environment, recommends cast iron and stainless steel cookware as safer options for stove top cooking, and oven-safe glass for baking. High-quality stainless steel pans are durable and can last a lifetime if treated with care. They also have greater searing and browning capabilities than non-stick pans while still being relatively easy to clean.

Cast iron creates an even, intense heat that helps seal in juices and keeps foods moist. Cast iron is also more versatile than non-stick cookware, as it can go from stove top to oven. While cast iron is heavy and needs to be “seasoned — a process that involves coating the pan in oil and baking it — it is a more affordable option than stainless steel. Cast iron is also scratch-resistant, so any kind of utensils can be used when cooking with it. While there are a growing number of new cookware options on the market, including ceramic options advertised as a zero-toxin, eco-friendly alternative to Teflon, EWG reports we don’t know enough about them yet to be certain they live up to such claims.

Keep in mind that any non-stick cookware you currently own that’s not chipped and in good condition can still safely be used with foods that are quickly cooked on low or medium heat, like eggs or pancakes.

“I personally do not advocate throwing away or giving away your non-stick pan,” says Simona Balan, senior scientist at the Green Science Policy Institute (GSPI). “That doesn’t solve the problem: If you throw it away, it will end up in a landfill from where it will leach PFASs into the environment, or even worse, it will get burned, which will release even more toxins.”

But if you’re buying new cookware, the experts agree the best way to play it safe would be cast iron for stove top cooking and glass for baking.

Contacts: Good Housekeeping Research Institute,; EWG,; GSPI,

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