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updated 11/18/2011 8:07:33 PM ET 2011-11-19T01:07:33

EarthTalk, a column written by the editors at "E/The Environmental Magazine," answers readers' environmental questions. EarthTalk archives are at emagazine.com/article/category/earthtalk. Got a question? Submit it at www.emagazine.com or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com

Dear EarthTalk: How clear (or not) are the links between the rising incidents of cancers around the world and the prevalence of synthetic chemicals in modern society?
-- Alberto Buono, Lee, Mass.

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With the World Health Organization hinting that cancer could unseat heart disease as the leading cause of death around the world, it’s no surprise that per capita cancer incidence is on the rise globally. In fact, cancer is the only major cause of death that has continued to rise since 1900. While it might depend on whom you ask, most researchers now agree that environmental factors—including exposure to chemicals and pollution—play a significant role today in determining who gets cancer and who doesn’t.

A blue ribbon panel of cancer experts initially convened by President George W. Bush researched hundreds of studies and concluded in 2010 (in its 240-page report, “Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now”) that our exposure to chemicals, pollution and radiation is to blame for the uptick in cancer deaths. “The American people—even before they are born—are bombarded continually with myriad combinations of these dangerous exposures,” the panel reported. “With the growing body of evidence linking environmental exposures to cancer, the public is becoming increasingly aware of the unacceptable burden of cancer resulting from environmental and occupational exposures that could have been prevented through appropriate national action.”

The panel cited grim statistics about cancer’s march, noting that 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives, with 21 percent likely to die from it. Cancer researchers fear that our reliance on chemicals is the main culprit, as borne out by hundreds of studies.

To wit, a 2000 study involving the examination of health records of more than 44,000 pairs of twins across Scandinavia found that “inherited genetic factors make a minor contribution” in causing most cancers but that “the environment has the principle role in causing sporadic cancer.” A 2010 UK study, whereby researchers investigated the level of chemical exposure of more than 1,100 women during their employment history, found that those study subjects who had been exposed to various industrial chemicals and airborne hydrocarbons were at least three times more likely to get breast cancer later on than women with little or no exposure in their backgrounds.

Not everyone agrees. Writing in Forbes magazine, Henry I. Miller and Elizabeth Whelan of the industry-friendly American Council on Science and Health argue that the findings of the presidential panel are based on politics not science: “If the authors had only bothered to consult a standard textbook on cancer epidemiology, they would have learned that lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol consumption and overexposure to sunlight—not chemicals in air, water and food—are the underlying causes of most preventable human cancers.”

While few today would doubt the health risks of such personal lifestyle factors, the President’s cancer panel nevertheless concluded that “the burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health,” and urged President Obama to use the power of his office to “remove the carcinogens and other toxins from our food, water and air that needlessly increase health care costs, cripple our nation's productivity, and devastate American lives.”

CONTACTS: President’s Cancer Panel, deainfo.nci.nih.gov/advisory/pcp/; American Council on Science and Health, www.acsh.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I heard that species of flora and fauna are dying at a growing rate globally. How is this calculated and which types of species are dwindling faster?
-
- Colin Gooder, Franklin, N.C.

Researchers believe that the rate of species loss currently underway is 100-1,000 times faster than what was normal (the so-called “background rate” of extinction) prior to human overpopulation and its negative environmental effects. But thanks to overhunting, deforestation, pollution, the spread of non-native species and now climate change, we are likely in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the geologic history of the world. The previous mass extinction, 65 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and other species; the previous one, 250 million years ago, killed off 90 percent of all species on the planet.

While the current mass extinction might in reality not be that bad—only time will tell—eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson predicts that the rate of species loss could top 10,000 times the background rate by 2030, and that fully half of the planet's higher life forms could be gone within 100 years. This jibes with statistics from the non-profit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)—keeper of the global “Red List” of endangered species—which currently considers 37.8 percent of the world’s already classified species to be threatened. Of course, this is far from the whole story, as biologists think that we have only classified 10 percent or less of the world’s total number of plant and animal species.

Which types of species are being hit hardest? An analysis of IUCN statistics from 2008 found that of the world’s fauna (animals), invertebrates (animals without backbones, such as earthworms, shellfish and insects) were suffering the most, with 40.5 percent of those classified considered threatened. Next hardest hit were fish species, with 36.6 percent threatened, followed by reptiles at 30.5 percent and amphibians at 30.4 percent. Meanwhile, 20.8 percent of mammal species were threatened and 12.2 percent of birds.

More shocking was the statistic that some 70.1 percent of plant species are at risk. However, a more recent (2010) study found that only 22 percent of the world’s classified plants are actually facing extinction. This finding has led analysts to question conservationists’ estimates in regard to animal species loss as well.

In lieu of any direct way to measure the rate of species loss, conservationists have relied on reversing the so-called “species-area relationship,” whereby scientists tally the number of species in a given area and then estimate how quickly more show up or evolve as viable habitat increases (or decreases in the case of reversing the concept). But lately this method of tracking and predicting species losses has been criticized for generating overestimates. “The overestimates can be very substantial,” argues UCLA evolutionary biologist Stephen Hubbell, “...but we are not saying [extinction] does not exist.”

However many species may be dying, it’s clear we are in the midst of another mass extinction, and if you believe 70 percent of biologists, unlike previous mass extinctions humanity is most likely the cause. Conservationists remain optimistic that we can marshal the resources to turn the tide—and we’ll need to if the planet is to remain habitable for our species, given our own dependencies on the world’s biodiversity.

CONTACTS: E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, www.eowilson.org; IUCN, www.iucn.org; “Species-area relationships always overestimate extinction rates from habitat loss,” www.nature.com/nature/journal/v473/n7347/full/nature09985.html.

Dear EarthTalk: Some drycleaners I’ve seen offer "wet cleaning" as opposed to dry cleaning. What’s the difference? Is it better for the environment?
-- Elizabeth Connelly, Tampa, Fla.

The dry-cleaning industry has come under attack in recent years for its use of perchloroethylene ("perc"), a noxious chemical solvent that does a good job cleaning and not damaging sensitive fabrics but which is also considered a hazardous air contaminant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and a probable human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Also, exposure to perc can irritate the skin and has been associated with central nervous system disorders. Drycleaners are required to reuse what perc they can and dispose of the rest as hazardous waste, but there are still concerns about contamination at and around sites that don’t follow best practices. California has banned the use of perc by drycleaners beginning in 2023, and several other states may follow suit.

Given the issues with perc—and the fact that most of the nation’s 34,000 commercial drycleaners still use it—many consumers are demanding greener ways to get their fine clothes and fabrics clean. So-called wet cleaning—whereby cleaning professionals use small amounts of water, non-toxic detergents and conditioners (instead of perc and other harsh detergents) inside specially designed machines to get fine garments and other fabrics clean—is one of the most promising alternatives.

"The garments are agitated in the computerized wet cleaning machine just enough to extract the dirt and grime, but not enough to alter the structure, size or color," reports the website Earth911.com. "The garments are then transferred to a high-tech drying unit that [that] automatically stops once the prescribed level of moisture is reached." Earth911.com adds that after drying, wet cleaned garments are pressed, hung up and bagged for pick-up by or delivery to customers—just like at the drycleaners.

The EPA is encouraging drycleaners to make the switch to greener solvents through a cooperative partnership with the professional garment and textile care industry. The agency’s Design for the Environment Garment and Textile Care Partnership recognizes the wet cleaning process as "an environmentally preferable technology that is effective at cleaning garments."

Another green alternative to perc is also starting to catch on: using pressurized carbon dioxide (CO2) to get fabrics clean. CO2 exists as a gas at low pressure but turns to liquid at higher pressure and can serve as a solvent in tandem with non-toxic soap to get materials clean. "Clothes are placed in the dry cleaning machine drum and cool CO2 is pumped in until, at high pressure, [it] becomes a liquid," reports Corry’s, a leading drycleaner in the Seattle area. "After the wash cycle is complete the CO2 is filtered, and the pressure is released spontaneously converting the CO2 back to a gas from a liquid. The CO2 then goes back into the holding tank. The clothes are left clean, smelling fresh, cool and perfectly dry."

There are other greener processes out there as well. If a new cleaner opens up in your neighborhood, chances are they are using something cleaner than perc. Or they should be. So make sure to go in and ask.CONTACTS: Earth911.com, www.earth911.com; Design for the Environment Garment and Textile Care Partnership, epa.gov/dfe/pubs/projects/garment/; Corry’s CO2 Cleaners, www.corrysco2cleaners.com.


Dear EarthTalk: What are the greenest light bulbs to use? I hear there has been a lot of backlash against compact fluorescents because they contain mercury.
-- Peter Roscoe, Hershey, Pa.

Just a decade ago, incandescent bulbs were just about the only game in town, despite their inefficient use of electricity to generate light and their primitive technology that had not changed since being invented some 125 years ago. But now that is all changing fast, with phase-outs of incandescents going on in Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Switzerland and the European Union, with Argentina, Russia, Canada and the U.S. following suit shortly. The U.S. passed legislation in 2007 to increase the efficiency of light bulbs sold in the U.S. by 25 percent or more by 2014, and then by as much as 60 percent more by 2020.

For decades, those concerned with energy savings have been touting the benefits of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) over incandescents. CFLs use only one-fifth of the electricity of incandescents to generate the same amount of light, and they can last six to 10 times longer. But CFLs’ cooler color and inability to be dimmed have made them less desirable. Another hindrance to the widespread adoption of CFLs has been their higher cost (though most consumers would save plenty in energy costs over the life of a bulb). Also, CFLs contain mercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that is released when the bulbs break. And once CFLs do burn out they must be disposed of properly to avoid releasing mercury into the environment.

Given the issues with CFLs, LEDs (short for light emitting diodes) are beginning to come on strong. These highly efficient bulbs don’t generate heat like incandescents (which helps to keep air conditioning costs down as well) and can last five times longer than CFLs and 40 times longer than incandescents. Tiny LED bulbs have been around for years in specialized applications (such as stadium scoreboards), but lighting engineers got the idea to cluster them and use reflective casings to harness and concentrate their light for residential use. In recognition of the LED’s potential, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) set up a special "solid-state" (LED) lighting R&D program to hasten the advance of the technology.

In comparing the total cost to run three different types of 60-watt equivalent bulbs for 50,000 hours (factoring in the cost of the both bulbs and electricity), the EarthEasy website found that LEDs would cost $95.95, CFLs $159.75 and incandescents $652.50. The 42 incandescent bulbs tested used up to 3,000 kilowatt hours of electricity compared to 700 and 300 for CFLs and LEDs respectively. However, despite the savings most consumers are loath to spend $35 and up for an LED bulb (even though it will save more than $500 in the long run) when a traditional incandescent bulb right next to it on the shelf costs $1.

There are other newer technologies in the works. Seattle-based Vu1 now sells highly efficient bulbs based on its Electron Stimulated Luminescence (ESL) technology, whereby accelerated electrons stimulate a phosphor coating on the inside of the bulb, making the surface glow. One of Vu1’s 65-watt equivalent bulbs retails for under $20 and uses a similar amount of energy as an equivalent CFL. And incandescents aren’t out of the efficient lighting race altogether just yet. Top bulb makers recently released new versions that use as much as a third less electricity to operate (complying with 2012’s new federal standards) and are promising newer models still that will run on even less energy.

CONTACTS: DOE Solid-State Lighting Program, www1.eere.energy.gov/buildings/ssl/; EarthEasy, www.eartheasy.com; Vu1 Corporation, www.vu1corporation.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Why don’t more states mandate deposits on beverage bottles as incentives for people to return them? Most bottles I’ve seen only list a few states on them.
-- Alan Wu, Cary, N.C.

So-called bottle bills, otherwise known as container recycling laws, mandate that certain types of beverage containers require a small deposit (usually five or ten cents) at checkout beyond the price of the beverage itself. Customers can return the empty containers later and reclaim their nickels and dimes. The idea is to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle and to force industry to re-use the raw materials.

According to the Container Recycling Institute (CRI), a California-based non-profit which encourages the collection and recycling of packaging materials (and runs the website BottleBill.org), the benefits of bottle bills include: supplying recyclable materials for a high-demand market; conserving energy, natural resources and landfill space; creating new businesses and green jobs; and reducing waste disposal costs and litter. The 10 U.S. states that currently have container recycling laws recycle at least 70 percent of their bottles and cans; this amounts to a recycling rate 2.5 times higher than in states without bottle bills.

Beverage containers make up a whopping 5.6 percent of the overall U.S. waste stream, so every bottle and can that gets recycled counts toward freeing up landfill space. And CRI reports that beverage containers account for some 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from landfilling municipal solid waste and replacing the wasted products with new ones made from virgin feedstock. So by promoting more recycling, bottle bills indirectly reduce our carbon footprints.

The 10 U.S. states with bottle bills are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Delaware’s legislature repealed its bottle bill after almost three decades on the books last year as the state’s bottle recycling rate had dropped to just 12 percent due to more and more retailers refusing to deal with the hassle of accepting returned containers. In place of its bottle bill, Delaware enacted a $0.04/bottle recycling fee that will help defray the costs of starting up a curbside recycling pickup system to service the entire state.

“We are extremely disappointed they chose to repeal their law, rather than enforce it,” reported CRI’s Susan Collins, adding that the new fee places a burden on consumers only. “Consumers will be subsidizing the producers and that is unfair.” CRI supports “extended producer responsibility” where producers and consumers together pay for the life cycle costs of product packaging.

Beyond Delaware, the main reason bottle bills haven’t caught on is because of opposition to them by the beverage industry, which doesn’t want to bear the costs of recycling and claims that the extra nickel or dime on the initial cost of the beverage is enough to turn potential customers away. The U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG) found that the beverage industry and its representatives spent about $14 million in campaign contributions aimed at defeating a national bottle bill between 1989 and 1994. Meanwhile, members of a Senate committee who voted against national bottle bill legislation in 1992 received some 75 times more in beverage-industry PAC money than those who voted in favor of the bill.

CONTACTS: Container Recycling Institute, www.container-recycling.org; USPIRG, www.uspirg.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Most gold mining operations use cyanide to extract gold from surrounding rock. What are the environmental implications of this, and are there alternatives?
-- J. Pelton, via e-mail

Although “cyanidation”—the use of a sodium cyanide compound to separate a precious metal from finely ground rock—has become less common in other forms of mining, it is still the dominant practice in gold mining. Some 90 percent of gold mines around the world employ cyanidation to harvest their loot.

“In gold mining, a diluted cyanide solution is sprayed on crushed ore that is placed in piles or mixed with ore in enclosed vats,” reports the State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), a project of the non-profit Defenders of Wildlife. “The cyanide attaches to minute particles of gold to form a water-soluble, gold-cyanide compound from which the gold can be recovered.”

But of course not all the cyanide gets recovered. Some of it gets spilled, and some is left within mine waste that is often buried underground woefully close to groundwater, leaving neighbors and public health officials worried about its effects on drinking water and on surrounding ecosystems and local wildlife.

“Mining and regulatory documents often state that cyanide in water rapidly breaks down in the presence of sunlight into largely harmless substances, such as carbon dioxide and nitrate or ammonia,” reports Earthworks, a Washington, DC-based non-profit. “However, cyanide also tends to react readily with many other chemical elements and is known to form, at a minimum, hundreds of different compounds.” While many of these compounds are less toxic than the original cyanide, says Earthworks, they can still persist in the environment and accumulate in fish and plant tissues, wreaking havoc on up the food chain.

In 2000, a breach in a tailings (mining waste) dam at a gold mine in Baia Mare, Romania resulted in the release of 100,000 cubic meters of cyanide-rich waste into the surrounding watershed. Nearly all aquatic life in nearby waters died, while drinking water supplies were cut off for some 2.5 million people.

In the wake of this accident, gold miners around the world have been taking steps to deal with tailings in a safer manner, through the use of special systems designed to prevent cyanide or its breakdown compounds from escaping into the environment. But such precautions at present are only voluntary. Regulators in the U.S.—the third largest gold producer after South Africa and Australia—don’t require mine operators to monitor cyanide and its breakdown compounds in nearby groundwater and water bodies, so no one knows just how big a problem might be.

One promising alternative to using cyanide in gold mines is the Haber Gold Process, a non-toxic extraction system that tests have shown can result in more gold recovery over a shorter period than cyanidation. Another alternative is YES Technologies’ biocatalyzed leaching process which proponents say is 200 times less toxic than cyanide. But with cyanidation well-entrenched in the industry and regulators looking the other way, these alternatives face an uphill battle in gaining widespread adoption.

CONTACTS: State Environmental Resource Center (SERC), www.serconline.org; Earthworks, www.earthworksaction.org; Haber Gold Process, www.habercorp.com/index.php?id=23; YES Technologies’ Cyanide-free Biocatalyzed Leaching, yestech.com/tech/gold1.htm.

Dear EarthTalk : I know that polar bears are losing ice cover due to climate change, but what are other ways that global warming affects wildlife around the globe?
-- Hanna Bond, Hartford, Conn.

Although perhaps the best known examples, polar bears certainly aren’t the only wildlife species already suffering as a result of global warming. With the sea ice that they depend upon as hunting platforms and places to rest during long swims quickly melting, polar bears were added to the federal list of threatened species in 2008. This contentious listing decision was significant in that it represented the first time the federal government acknowledged that global warming was not only having a noticeable effect on the environment but could also be blamed for the decline of particular species. Environmentalists claimed the listing was reason enough to reign in our carbon emissions sharply, but of course that has yet to happen.

While all organisms on the planet are affected in one way or another by climate change, some are more at risk than others. "Species with small population sizes, restricted ranges, and limited ability to move to different habitat will be most at risk," reports the National Audubon Society. "Similarly, different habitats and ecosystems will be impacted differently, with those in coastal, high-latitude, and high-altitude regions most vulnerable."

Audubon, which is primarily concerned with birds, recently published a report based on 40 years of data that found some 60 percent of the 305 avian species in North America during winter have been on the move in recent decades—shifting their ranges northward by an average of 35 miles, as habitat shifts thanks to warming temperatures. The Brant (a coastal bird), the Ring-necked Duck (a water bird), and the American Goldfinch (a land bird), all moved about 200 miles north over the last four decades. While it’s questionable whether some birds will find suitable habitat to the north—we may have paved that piece of land over—the picture looks even more grim for those species not willing or able to abandon old roosts. Also, Audubon reports that the timing of reproductive events (egg-laying, flowering, spawning) across different interdependent species is occurring earlier than ever "in some cases interrupting delicate cycles that ensure that insects and other food are available for young animals."

Another leading conservation group, Defenders of Wildlife, details how a long list of other North American fauna is in decline as a result of global warming. The gray wolf, trout, salmon, arctic fox, desert bighorn sheep, desert tortoise, Edith’s checkerspot butterfly, golden toad, Hawaiian monk seal, lobster, manatee, painted turtle, penguin, streamside salamander and western toad are just a few of the species on Defenders’ list that are negatively impacted by our profligate fossil fuel use. Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society adds the Irrawaddy dolphin of Southeast Asia, the Arctic’s musk ox, the ocean-going hawksbill turtle and others to the list of species that are "feeling the heat" from global warming.

While it may seem futile given the scope of the problem, everyone can still take steps to be part of the solution. Switch out your incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents or, even better, the new generation of LED bulbs. Bike, walk and take mass transit more; drive your car less. Telecommute when you can. Try to source as much of your food and other goods locally to cut down on carbon-heavy transcontinental freight shipping. If not for yourself, do it for the polar bears, turtles, foxes and toads.

CONTACTS: National Audubon Society, www.audubon.org; Defenders of Wildlife, www.defenders.org; Wildlife Conservation Society, www.wcs.org.EarthTalk® is written and edited by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of E - The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe. Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

Dear EarthTalk: Freight companies like FedEx, UPS and all those 18 wheelers on the highways probably generate a lot of pollution and global warming. Is anything being done to address this?
-- Michael Brown, Washington, DC

Freight companies operating in the U.S. and beyond do generate significant amounts of pollution. While transportation technologies and fuels have gotten more efficient in recent years, freight demands have grown considerably over the past two decades. Today, in the U.S. alone, for example, freight is responsible for about a quarter of all transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

Most freight trucks, locomotives and ships run on diesel engines, which are major sources of emissions of nitrogen oxides, particulate matter and carbon dioxide (CO2). Repeated exposure to nitrogen oxide-based smog and particulate matter has been linked to a wide range of human health problems, and we all know what CO2 emissions are doing to the planet’s atmosphere and ecosystems in terms of global warming.

According to a 2005 analysis by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHA), heavy duty trucks are the biggest villains, accounting for 77.8 percent of total U.S. freight greenhouse gas emissions. Boat, train and airplane freight contribute 10.8, 8.7 and 2.8 percent respectively.

Besides filling up loads completely and keeping equipment well tuned, shippers can reduce emissions via smarter operations and procedures. Software developed by UPS’s Roadnet helps logistics managers re-engineer their fleet routing, preventing tons of emissions and saving millions of dollars and in the process.

Newer Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emissions standards aim to reduce nitrogen oxide and particulate matter pollution from freight operators upwards of 60 percent by 2020. They are a step in the right direction, but the failure of Congress to pass substantive federal legislation limiting CO2 emissions means that a growing freight sector will continue to pump out more and more greenhouse gases.

A recently released report by the tri-lateral North American Free Trade Agreement’s (NAFTA’s) Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) lays out a vision for how to make freight—the second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in North America after electricity generation—more efficient and less polluting across Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

The report identifies some scary trends. For example, emissions from freight-related vehicles grew 74 percent between 1990 and 2008—some 40 percent more than emissions growth from passenger vehicles over the same time span. Also, while emissions by light duty vehicles are expected to drop 12 percent by 2030, freight truck emissions are expected to grow by 20 percent. To start turning the freight sector around, CEC recommends that the three countries party to NAFTA start shifting to lower carbon fuels, putting a price on carbon emissions and replacing crumbling infrastructure. These fixes won’t be cheap, but CEC claims they will save money in the long run and clean up of North American freight altogether.

CONTACTS: FHA’s "Assessing the Effects of Freight Movement on Air Quality at the National and Regional Level,"

www.fhwa.dot.gov/environment/air_quality/publications/effects_of_freight_movement

; Roadnet Technologies,

www.roadnet.com

; Commission for Environmental Cooperation,

www.cec.org

.

Dear EarthTalk: I remember that medical waste, washing up in New Jersey, I believe, was a big issue in the late 1980s. Is it still today?
-- Walter Maliszewski, Camden, N.J.

Medical waste washing up on New Jersey beaches was a big problem in the late 1980s, closing beaches along a 50-mile stretch of the New Jersey shore. Officials scrambled for months to figure out where the waste was coming from, and eventually zeroed in on New York City’s Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Sub-optimal systems there were not successfully containing medical waste and other garbage on site, and New Jersey beaches—and vacationers and business owners—were paying the price. Although no one was injured or exposed to disease by the washed up waste, the public was especially alarmed given the HIV/AIDS crisis gripping the nation at that time. New York City was required to pay $1 million for past pollution damages and had to shoulder the cost of clean-up at Jersey Shore beaches as well.

The resulting loss of tourism cost business owners throughout the affected region as much as 40 percent of their revenue, with total losses estimated at well over $1 billion. Some New Jersey business owners remain upset that New York wasn’t forced to pay them reparations for lost revenue as well.

In the wake of the scare, Congress enacted the Medical Waste Tracking Act in 1988, requiring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create a program to better track medical waste from cradle-to-grave so that it didn’t end up fouling beaches or any other environments. While the program was not renewed when it expired in 1991, it served as a model for how states and municipalities could better track potentially dangerous medical waste while also helping medical facilities institute systems and processes for making sure they knew where their waste was going and that it would be disposed of responsibly.

Meanwhile, New York and New Jersey have coordinated on setting up and maintaining their own systems to stem the so-called “syringe tides.” The cornerstone is a multi-agency program designed to intercept debris within New Jersey Harbor before it can get to tourist-crowded Jersey Shore beaches. Thanks to the plan—which relies on surveillance by environmental groups as well as routine and special clean-up sweeps by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the implementation of a communications network to facilitate the reporting of incidents and quick responses—beach closures declined from more than 70 miles in 1988 to less than four miles in 1989, with closures remaining at similarly low levels ever since.

Of course, medical waste is hardly the only problem facing America's beaches and coastal waters. According to the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), bacterial contamination from sewage treatment outflows, contaminated storm water and other sources caused more than 24,000 beach closures or advisories across the country in 2010 alone. NRDC reports on water quality at U.S. beaches every year in its series of “Testing the Waters” reports. Pressure from the group has helped spur the EPA to agree to overhaul Clean Water Act regulations pertaining to urban and suburban storm water runoff and update decades-old beach water quality standards by 2012. These improvements should help to keep beaches from the Jersey Shore to the Great Lakes to California, and points in between, clear of debris and safe for swimmers and sunbathers of every stripe. 

CONTACTS: NRDC Testing the Waters, www.nrdc.org/water/oceans/ttw;
Medical Waste Tracking Act of 1988, www.epa.gov/osw/nonhaz/industrial/medical/tracking.htm.

Dear EarthTalk: What is “nonpoint source pollution?” How much of a problem is it and how can it be controlled?
-- Devon Corey, New York, N.Y.

Unlike pollution that comes from specific industrial factories, sewage treatment plants and other easily discernible ‘points’, nonpoint source pollution comes from many diffuse sources, but in the aggregate creates a formidable challenge for municipal, state and federal environmental and water control authorities.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nonpoint source pollution is “caused by rainfall or snowmelt moving over and through the ground [where it...] picks up and carries away natural and human-made pollutants, finally depositing them into lakes, rivers, wetlands, coastal waters and ground waters.” Some of the most common pollutants in nonpoint source pollution include excess fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides from agricultural lands and residential areas and oil, grease and toxic chemicals from urban runoff and energy production. Sediment from construction, mining and agricultural sites as well as salts, acids, bacteria and atmospheric deposition from myriad sources also play a role.

While its effects vary region to region, nonpoint source pollution is likely the largest threat to our water quality. The U.S. has made “tremendous advances in the past 25 years to clean up the aquatic environment by controlling pollution from industries and sewage treatment plants,” says the EPA. “Unfortunately, we did not do enough to control pollution from diffuse, or nonpoint, sources.” The EPA also calls nonpoint source pollution the U.S.’s “largest source of water quality problems” and the main reason 40 percent of our rivers, lakes, and estuaries “are not clean enough to meet basic uses such as fishing or swimming.”

Because it comes from so many sources, regulating nonpoint source pollution is almost impossible, so it really comes down to individuals taking steps to minimize the pollution generated by their actions. The EPA reports that we can all do our part by: keeping litter, pet waste, leaves and debris out of street gutters and storm drains, which usually drain right into nearby water bodies; applying lawn and garden chemicals sparingly; disposing of used oil, antifreeze, paints and other household chemicals properly, that is, at your nearest hazardous household waste drop-off, not in storm drains; cleaning up spilled brake fluid, oil, grease and antifreeze, not hosing them into the street where they will eventually reach local waterways; and controlling soil erosion on your property by planting ground cover and stabilizing erosion-prone areas.

Beyond what we can do individually, local, regional and state governments can also help reduce nonpoint source pollution by enacting and enforcing building codes and other rules that can reduce outflows. The voluntary reduction in phosphates in dishwashing detergents in the U.S. last year, for example, was a big step in reducing the nutrient load into our streams and lakes. Some municipalities have gone so far as to mandate erosion and sediment control ordinances requiring the construction of natural buffers in building and landscaping projects to filter out pollutants before they reach local watersheds. If your community doesn’t have similar rules in place, encourage your local officials to enact them.

CONTACT: EPA’s Nonpoint Source Pollution Page, www.epa.gov/owow_keep/NPS.

Dear EarthTalk: I heard of a practice called cyanide fishing, which is used mostly to collect aquarium specimens, but I understand it is also used to catch fish we eat. Isn’t this very unhealthy?
-- Phil Seymour, Albany, N.Y.

Cyanide fishing, whereby divers crush cyanide tablets into plastic squirt bottles of sea water and puff the solution to stun and capture live coral reef fish, is widely practiced throughout Southeast Asia despite being illegal in most countries of the region. The practice began in the 1960s in the Philippines as a way to capture live reef fish for sale primarily to European and North American aquarium owners—a market now worth some $200 million a year.

But today the technique is also used to supply specialty restaurants in Hong Kong and other large Asian cities. There high roller customers can choose which live fish they want prepared on the spot for their dinner at a cost of up to $300 per plate in what the non-profit World Resources Institute (WRI) calls “an essential status symbol for major celebrations and business occasions.” WRI adds that as the East Asian economy has boomed in recent decades, live reef food fish has become a trade worth $1 billion annually.

Of course, the cyanide itself is no good for the fish that ingest it. Internet chat boards are rife with comments about cyanide-caught aquarium fish developing cancer within a year of being purchased. And many aquarium owners are willing to pay a premium for “net-caught” ornamental fish as they have a longer life expectancy.

But perhaps the greater damage inflicted by cyanide fishing is to the coral reefs where it is employed, as cyanide kills the reefs and also many of the life forms that rely on them. Researchers estimate that more than a million kilograms of cyanide have been squirted onto Philippine reefs alone over the last half century. These days the practice is much more widespread, with some of the world’s most productive reefs being decimated.

“Despite the fact that cyanide fishing is nominally illegal in virtually all Indo-Pacific countries, the high premium paid for live reef fish, weak enforcement capacities, and frequent corruption have spread the use of the poison across the entire region—home o the vast majority of the planet’s coral reefs,” reports WRI. “As stocks in one country are depleted, the trade moves on to new frontiers, and cyanide fishing is now confirmed or suspected in countries stretching from the central Pacific to the shores of East Africa. Sadly, the most pristine reefs, far from the usual threats of sedimentation, coral mining and coastal development, are the primary target for cyanide fishing operations.”

While there is not much evidence of cyanide-caught fish poisoning the people who eat it—the dose retained by a fish after being puffed is relatively small—the risk nevertheless remains, especially for those who ingest a lot of it. Nausea and gastritis are the typical symptoms of cyanide poisoning, and of course larger doses can cause death. WRI estimates that some 20 percent of the live fish for sale at markets across Southeast Asia are caught using cyanide. Children, the elderly and pregnant women should be especially careful to avoid cyanide-caught fish.

CONTACT: World Resources Institute, www.wri.org.

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