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Not a rabbit

The New York Times reports today on the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center’s Tox21, a robot that can assess the toxicity of thousands of different chemicals multiple times in a week.  This is a great leap forward for those who deplore testing on animals and for the government, since the EPA currently tests only one chemical at a time and gets through just a couple dozen assessments a year. There are currently about 80,000 chemicals used in foods and consumer products in the U.S., and the vast majority of them have never been tested for human or environmental health impacts.

So Tox21, the brainchild of four government agencies, is progress, and I’m especially eager for it to tackle the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water “contaminant candidate list” (since we’re all drinking so much tap water, right?). But the Times story says that the compounds will be tested only for toxicity. What about these chemicals’ impact on the immune and reproductive systems, or their neurological, cognitive, and behavioral effects? The chemicals being tested might not cause cancer or birth defects, but they could have a slew of other negative effects – at very low doses or in combination with other compounds.  Unfortunately, testing for these effects is an extremely complicated proposition.  

You can read more about our continuous exposure to low doses of scores of chemicals in McKay Jenkins’ just published “What’s Gotten Into Us?” which I reviewed in this Sunday’s NewYork Times Book Review. Or check out John Wargo’s Green Intelligence, or Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s Slow Death by Rubber Duck, or Susan Freinkel’s delightful and literary Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. But steal yourself for the inevitable: it’s depressing stuff.

May 13, 2011   No Comments

Beyond Plastic

Last night I went to Fort Greene (Brooklyn) to hear Donovan Hohn read from Moby-Duck.  I reviewed it here but worried, a little, that people uninterested in, or sick of, environmental issues wouldn’t pick it up. I needn’t have worried: Moby-Duck is a best seller, likely because it transcends by miles its proximate subject – the 28,800 bath toys that went overboard in the North Atlantic nineteen years ago, where they came from and where they went. I read a fair number of books about plastics, environmental toxins, consumption, and waste, so it wasn’t the facts that kept me turning pages. The book gripped me for the simple reason that it’s so well written (he’s “cower under the bed” good, my editor said to me, speaking half in jealousy and half in admiration). The book is exciting and funny, literary but unpretentious. Hohn digests and beautifully synthesizes an awful lot of scientific information, and he’s skeptical and careful with facts, something often missing in writing about the environment.

Hohn signed my galley of the book, then he managed to lay on me a complete Floatee set: the yellow duck, a red beaver, a green frog, and a blue turtle. I was so flustered by meeting the author that I didn’t process the exchange till I was on the subway home. Wait a minute! I said to myself. Haven’t I spent a decade trying to avoid receivership of nonrecyclable goods made of nonrewable resources??

Good one, Donovan. It was great to meet you.

p.s. Yes, there are better pictures of the Floatees out there, but these are now my Floatees, sitting on my stained counter.


March 17, 2011   No Comments

“The public is notified, and on we go”

A dreadful bill is pending in Montana’s legislature. It says that if a water system fails to meet safe-drinking-water standards for nitrate, water providers –including cafes and restaurants–would be allowed to substitute bottled water for tap. The bill seems to let utilities off the hook for remediation, hand bottlers a giant gift, and set a dangerous precedent for municipal water suppliers across the country. Instead of looking at a systemic failure–asking why nitrate levels are high and working to lower them–this bill lets private providers step into the breach.  (Nitrate interferes with the delivery of oxygen to the brain, which is especially harmful for babies, and is linked with cancer.  Excessive levels of nitrate get into drinking water from leaky septic tanks and fields spread with excessive manure. It’s possible to remove nitrate in water-treatment plants, and with home filters, though preventing contamination is a better idea. You can learn more about nitrate at the EPA’s website, here.)

Should the bill pass, a prophecy will come true: that love of the bottle will lead to the deterioration of community water supplies. Bottled water isn’t the solution here, not in the long run. It’s too expensive, and its environmental toll is too high. Moreover, it will do nothing to prevent nitrate contamination via agriculture (nitrate can be absorbed by irrigated crops) or an accumulation of exposures from cooking, bathing, dish washing, and those melting ice cubes in your glass of Perrier. And then there’s the vast world of nonhuman creatures that also rely  on clean water. I’ll say no more.

Except this: who’s to say that the bottled water served by your Missoulian cafe is any safer than the stuff coming from the tap? Bottlers aren’t required to share the results of their tests. A utility is. Ellen Leahy, the director of the Missoula City-County Health Department told the Missoulian that when problems are found with municipal water, “what you see is it’s fixed. … The public is notified, and on we go. ”

March 2, 2011   1 Comment

More skinny on BPA exposure routes

Given a choice, we’d probably all rather have less BPA, a chemical linked with hormone disruption, than more inside our bodies. We don’t want to eat or drink any more of it than we have to. Scientists have long known that BPA is a component not only in hard plastics, can linings, and some pipes, but also in thermally printed receipts. Today the journal Chemosphere reports on BPA passing through skin: Science News explains (here) how BPA in the bloodstream breaks down into metabolates known as conjugates, which can then be deconjugated. I don’t understand this process, or how harmful BPA is at the levels these scientists discovered. I was mostly intrigued to learn the toxicologists tested the BPA on pig skin. No, not footballs, but on the ears of pigs fresh from the slaughterhouse. Then, to validate the value of pigs as a human surrogate, they tested BPA on human skin. No, not skin attached to a human, but abdominal skin that had been excised from forty-year-old surgical patients. The pass-through rate was the same.

If you’re a cashier, you might want to consider wearing gloves when handling receipts (although BPA-free receipt paper is available). My advice for consumers paranoid about touching the receipts? Buy less stuff.  (I just love saying that.)

November 3, 2010   No Comments

How much BPA does the human liver filter?

The New York Times reports today on a study in Environmental Health Perspectives: humans may be exposed to eight times the “safe” level (as determined by the U.S. EPA) of BPA, and the liver isn’t clearing all of it — according to studies that extrapolate from mice and monkeys to humans. But is what remains in our blood biologically active? The regulatory and scientific debate goes on.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

Inching toward the compost revolution

Seattle Public Utilities just announced that by July 1st, 2010, “all food service products designed for one-time-use must be replaced with one-time use products that are either compostable or recyclable.” Yahoo. The rule covers restaurants, grocery stores, delis, coffee shops and institutional cafeterias. But since many Seattle recyclers already accept plastic clam shells, yogurt cups, berry boxes, and so on, I wonder how many food outlets will go to the additional expense of purchasing compostable containers.

The city collects food waste already, so the service ware and food scraps will now go into the same bin. Is collecting and processing biodegradable material less energy and water intensive than collecting and processing materials for recycling? I don’t know. But the end product – fertilizer or mulch – seems like an unmitigated good (so long as there’s an outlet for the material), while the consumer products made from mixed plastics (T-shirts, carpeting, strapping, sleeping bag filling, etc.) will merely be landfilled at the end of their useful lives.

Still, the recycled plastic is replacing virgin plastic…. Have you checked out the live feed from the BP spill lately? Start here.

June 4, 2010   No Comments

One Australian’s take on water privatization

Interesting piece at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Drum Unleashed” website on water privatization. Author Ian Douglas is largely against it.

May 26, 2010   No Comments

“Recycling’s so boring….

We tried to make it a little bit more exciting.” That’s David Belt, developer and art entrepreneur, speaking about his latest project, Glassphemy!, in the New York Times today. Visitors to Glassphemy (by invitation only), on a lot near the Gowanus Canal, will stand on low and high platforms at either end of a 20 foot by 30 foot box made of bulletproof glass. (That’s a bird’s eye view, above. Photo by Piotr Redlinski.) Folks on the high end get to peg beer bottles, donated by nearby bars, into the pit or at visitors on the low end. The vibration and noise set off flashing lights.

It sounds like great fun: who doesn’t love smashing glass? But there’s another dimension to this installation. ReadyMade magazine is sponsoring a contest, asking readers to submit their best ideas for recycling the glass, and Belt’s company, Macro Sea, will produce the design. According to the Times article, the reuse will help “counter the widespread suspicion that recyclables are just thrown out anyway.” I hate to say it, but in New York City, which no longer mixes glass with asphalt in paving, our glass is pulverized for use as cover (a legal requirement) at landfills. If Belt can come up with a higher and local use (local is important: glass is too heavy to haul very far) for the city’s constant stream of broken, mixed-color glass, I’d love to see it. Until then, I remain reluctant to spend too much time and water cleaning out my peanut butter jars for “recycling.” Blasphemy? Maybe.

Of course, those beer bottles he’s using are exactly the sort of material we don’t want smashed up: beer bottles can be refilled with beer, or broken down to make new beer bottles (an energy saver). That’s why we have a bottle bill in New York State: it helps gets this relatively clean, homogeneous stream back into production. If Belt invites me in to smash (please, sir?), I’d love to bring my own projectiles — the mixed up glass containers not covered by the bottle bill, the stuff that’s otherwise headed to the dump. Lord knows, there’s plenty of it, and it keeps on coming.

May 12, 2010   No Comments

Dear Tom

I was going to post a comment in my comment section in response to Tom Lauria’s comment on my post of yesterday but decided to answer him here instead. (Tom is vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.)

Tom, I admire your vigilance and your stubbornness! The International Bottled Water Association is really getting its money’s worth out of you.  First: Yes, reuse takes precedence over recycling (and this isn’t exactly new), but reducing (whether it’s the number of refillable or recyclable bottles produced or the number of delivery trucks they ride around on) comes even higher in the 3R hierarchy.

A question: how old are you? Do you remember when “low cost,” convenient, single-use containers of water didn’t exist? I do. (Yes, there were five-gallon reusable jugs here and there, but they were hardly common in public places.) And yet I wasn’t dehydrated. Were you? There’s no medical basis for this idea that we must drink 64 oz of water a day.  If “bottled water is only for hydration,” as you state, and we’re adequately hydrated through other media (tap water, other liquids, and foods that contain water), there goes one of your rationales.

I do think people should have a choice of tap or bottled water, but the playing field is hardly level if water fountains continue to disappear and citizens mistakenly believe their local water supply is tainted.  (Sure there are some problems with tap water, but the vast majority of Americans has decent water. Those that don’t need to know exactly what’s wrong, then work on solutions to the problem.) I think people should know the facts about bottled water and tap water, then make an informed choice, a choice that doesn’t depend on ignorance.

Btw: I don’t consider myself a bottled-water activist. Have you actually read my water book (or my garbage book or my rainforest book) or heard one of my college lectures on drinking water? (Sorry folks, I just thought I’d make a shameless plug for the entity that financially supports me: me.)

April 17, 2010   2 Comments

Do individual actions matter? The Onion says yes

Of course, this works both ways — actions for the better (what if everyone sent toxic-laden packaging back to its manufacturer?) and for the worse. Read The Onion’s recent piece, “How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder,” and consider that every day 30 million people (or more – I’ve seen higher numbers) do the same.  Sure, recycling rates for water bottles have gone up in the last couple years, but we’re still recovering less than 70 percent of them. Can’t find a recycling bin (one of the excuses in the Onion story)? How about not buying a single-serve beverage and seeking out a water fountain, or waiting till you get where you’re going to quench your thirst?

Thanks to Leila Darabi, over at, and Steve Tomsik, teaching science at Brooklyn’s PS 107, for pointing me toward the story.

January 22, 2010   No Comments