About Barbara Hirsch

Classical recording engineer and eco-person. Barbara's EcoFacts column is published on Santa Barbara View every weekend and is archived under the Green & Garden tab.

Author Archive | Barbara Hirsch

EcoFacts: States of Dryness

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

No news here:  as we enter the dry season in California, we are coming from one. Our water supplies sure are not looking good.  If you look here you can see extreme and exceptional drought areas in California, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and Oklahoma. Currently half of the mainland U.S. is in drought, but fully 100% California is. All of its water supplies, snow pack, water from the Colorado river, and our local supplies, are down. Snow pack is about the lowest in a century, at less than 10% of normal levels.

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Santa Barbara View photo: Cachuma Lake, April 2014

Some small rural California communities may be running out of water in the next few months.

A piece in the San Jose Mercury highlights a database that shows per capita water use by region in the state. These range from South San Francisco at 76 gallons per day to Palm Springs at 736 gallons per day. Goleta is at 119 gallons per day and Santa Barbara is at 128! Hooray for us!

How much water do we residents use? You can look at your water bill. Our water is billed by the unit HCF – one hundred cubic feet –  which is equal to 748 gallons, about  25 gallons per day, per household. A shower without a low flow head uses a heck of a lot of water per minute, 4-7 gallons, so one shower could easily be more than a bath of 25-50 gallons.

Time for those Navy Showers! One could save 10 or 15,000 gallons per year by getting wet and turning off the shower to soap up and scrub. Sponge baths can work well too and then you don’t have to wipe down the tiles/glass/anything afterwards.

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EcoFacts: Galluping for Climate Change Answers

You’ve probably heard the news about the recent IPCC report on climate change, it was a doozy, describing in detail the potentially and quite certain disastrous effects of a warming planet due to anthropogenic (human caused) emissions. There will be a few positive effects too, but the negative ones will win out. Climate change “is having an impact on every ecosystem from the equator to the poles.”

climate-changeIf you wonder, as I do, about how we are thinking about these things in the U.S. lately, thanks to the Gallupers, we can have an idea.

Over one third of Americans worry a great deal about climate change. About the same number say that they understand the subject very well, triple the number in the early nineties.* Many more worry about pollution though, and these percentages have increased since last year. The two groups who are the least concerned are those over age 65 and Republicans. Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Big Box, Big Impact

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Target_LogoYou know that things are starting to shift when the big box stores take notice and… perhaps even act. The actions mentioned here if seriously pursued, could have tremendous results in human and environmental health, as apparently 127 million Americans visit Walmart and its subsidiaries each week.*

Walmart (also Sam’s Club) recently announced a new policy on sustainable chemistry in consumables that would eventually remove proven harmful ingredients in thousands of products currently on their shelves. Ten chemical ingredients in household cleaning, personal care and others are targeted now, and will have to be replaced with safer equivalents.  Also, beginning in less than a year, suppliers will be required to disclose and post ingredients lists in over 3,000 product categories online. “Walmart will utilize The Sustainability Index twice annually, in spring and in fall, to measure continuous improvement.” And, they will be cleaning up their act with their own house brands of goods.

Target (110 million customers) is on board too, their targeting softer but easier to hit… They will be scoring products as to ingredients, transparency and environmental impact and rewarding vendors with incentives. Target is using established list of substances such as the EU’s SVHC (Substances of Very High Concern). And now, thankfully, the concern level has risen.

*This number (really, over half of the adult population?) is quoted everywhere, earliest sighting is from 2007. Stranger still is that the same number is used for the number of pounds of food Walmart gives away each year. In any case,  Walmart is one of the five largest corporations in the world, by sales.

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EcoFacts: Coral Society

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Of the Co2 generated by fossil fuel burning, close to a third of it is absorbed into the oceans. The acidifying effect of this changes the calcium carbonate availability, keeping the myriad marine calcifiers from doing their thing efficiently. These are crustaceans, shellfish and myriad tiny organisms, both plant and animal, as well as coral, chief architects of some of the richest, most abundant marine environments. When Eizabeth Kolbert was here recently talking about her latest book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, one of the most powerful moments in her talk was a couple of projected images, one of the ocean floor near volcanic vents streaming CO2 where little can survive, and the other of an ocean floor miles away, colorful, full of life. You may have to go to her book for these, but amazingly, google “streetview” offers an interactive experience of part of the Great Barrier Reef. These images are reassuring, as are so many of the gorgeous underwater images we’ve all seen.
Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Our Own Ecosystem

Eco FactsLife is a balancing act, and the pH of a system is a perfect example.Numbers higher than 7 on the pH scale are alkaline and lower is acidic, and here are some pHs of our bodily fluids:

blood =  7.35 – 7.45
saliva =  6.4 – 8
urine = 4 – 8
stomach acids =  2(ish)
small intestine = 8
intracellular fluids = 7 and higher

The systems in our bodies are always working together to regulate pH, especially our lungs and kidneys. When we exhale and pee, we are ridding ourselves of CO2 and other acidic waste products, products of breathing and eating.

How foods taste does not indicate whether or not they are acid forming when digested. For example, lemons are very alkaline, which is why they are often used in cleanses and juice fasts. Watermelons are too. I remember an alternative doctor, years ago, recommending an all watermelon diet for a short while to an unwell dear older British gent I knew, one whose diet was normally things like eggs fried in bacon fat. (I enjoyed those eggs too.)

Processed foods and sugars are acid producing as well as meats, dairy and most grains. There are hundreds of charts and lists available, and with some foods, they do not agree, due to varying properties. Check them out if interested, searching acid alkaline foods and images, or acid alkaline diets.

Sodium bicarbonate, baking soda, is a natural antacid, good for taking care of excess stomach acids, preventing tooth decay, counteracting poison oak and bug bites, and in medicine as a cure for acidosis. It’s also great for cleaning, us too!

In baking, it reacts with acids to release CO2, hence the rising properties.

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EcoFacts: Look and See

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsIn the last few decades, we have come to realize that companies who make our food, our things and provide services have not always had our best interests in mind. Sometimes out of sheer ignorance, and sometimes not, in the interests of profits and shareholders, certain costs to our well being (“our” being the living community) were being ignored and externalized, were not part of the bottom line. (See triple bottom line.)

This is why I began writing ecofacts over eight years ago. I was curious about things that were under our radar, and so others must be. Maybe I could save them some research time or peak someone’s curiosity as mine was.

Thanks to our world now for the troves of information available and for the devices that allow us access to them.  Perhaps we can each contribute to the better health of the world, even in the tiniest ways, armed with a finer knowledge! Here are a few sites for your research pleasure/satisfaction.

  1. Earth Directory – “meta” directory for global sites in all areas of environment
  2. EPA - difficult to navigate, but awesome nevertheless!
  3. Tox Town - from the National Library of Medicine, a fantastic and fun interactive site for all kinds of health concerns
  4. Skin Deep - for research on personal care products from the Environmental Working Group
  5. Household products database - from the National Institute of Health, a directory of products and  chemicals
  6. MWRA – from Massachusetts Water Authority, a useful directory of products and healthy alternatives for the home
    Food additives - FDA’s data base for Everything Added to Food in the US
    Grist - a searchable publication of clever and serious writings on things large (big eco news) and small (ask Umbra)

Happy searching.

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EcoFacts: Good Fuel

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

In this time of hearts and symbols of love, here is an indisputable declaration.

We need more love in the world.

The fantastical thing about love (besides the way it feels) is that its effects are greater than that which is given, love always begets more love, and anything nurtured with it, grows stronger and healthier, able to love more. Love is purely constructive, whereas its foe, the other… is destructive.

Money can also be truly constructive, for it is a fuel, like love.

slowmoneySLOW MONEY is a new kind of investing, one with love. Its mission is to “accelerate the transition from an economy based on extraction and consumption to an economy based on preservation and restoration…” Money as “nurture capital”. For those who may scoff at this, in the last 3 years this nascent movement has invested over $30 million in jobs that supply some of our most fundamental needs: healthy food and soil, for healthier, happier communities. Because “sustainable agriculture isn’t an option, it’s a necessity” for all of life.  For some heart boosting serum, check out these past Slow Money investments.

The larger issue is simply putting money where one’s heart is, rather than where so much of it currently goes, into unhealthful things like food filled with damaging things, or stocks and funds that support destructive systems like mining, drilling and manufacturing in places where issues of human rights and/or our environment are ignored. Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Washing the Dishes

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Here’s a personal dish washing story. Are you excited?

Eco FactsSeriously, this is fairly remarkable and disgusting. The place where I worked for many years had a little kitchen area. We were using some standard dish washing soap. At some point I realized that the plastic scrubbing sponge smelled badly, and then my hands had the same horrible odor. I washed them, and the odor remained! Whatever caused that odor clearly permeated the skin on my fingers. After washing and microwaving the sponge, the problem would quickly return. We went through lots of those sponges. I finally got around to buying some eco-friendly dishwashing liquid for the office. This smell never happened using it. When the bottle ran out, someone would pull out the standard stuff. The odor happened again. I’d get another bottle of friendly stuff at the Co-op. Bad odor gone. There seemed to be a lesson here, having to do with the combination of chemicals in soap and sponge, though I did not experiment with different sponges (like cellulose ones). Later, I smelled that same yummy scent at a friend’s house who was using one of those sponges and Dawn or whatever the soap was, and let her know of this experience.
Continue Reading →

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EcoFacts: Oceans Alive‏

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Doctor Sylvia Earle

Sylvia Earle

These days, so many of us are thinking about water, either too little or too much of the fresh kind. Last night, I was able to see the new film “Mission Blue”, which opened up the 29th Annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, about the current state of our oceans and one of their greatest advocates, oceanographer Sylvia Earle.  She was there as well, and we were all able to share her sense of wonder and excitement, watching this gorgeous film of deep sea life, like the rainbow colors of bioluminescence in its myriad forms.

Dubbed “Her Deepness” after her solo walk on the ocean floor, Sylvia Earle has spent nearly a year (over 7,000 hours) exploring the ocean’s wonders and at 78, she is indeed a deep body of wonders herself. She has experienced so much heartbreak seeing, first hand, the changes that have occurred in the last fifty years, e.g. half the coral reefs gone, large and small fish populations radically dwindling, with only a small percentage of some species remaining.

But, she is also a deep well of hope. She explains one reason for her optimism. Fifty years ago, we did not have the capacity to know what we were doing to earth’s life support systems.  Now, thanks (ironically) to the fossil fuel energy that has propelled us, we can be informed. We can act. Unlike otter creatures, we can plan our future. “We have the power of knowing, the power of judgement, the ability to choose”.  ”If we could do one thing to secure our future, it would be to protect what remains of the natural world that keeps us alive.”

Her “Hope Spots… are places where human activities and impacts will be minimized, the unique and vital ecosystems [there] will have a chance to recover and to flourish.” There are currently thousands of Marine Protected Areas but they make up only about 1% of the ocean. With the help of Mission Blue, created after her Ted talk in 2009, plans for 50 more have been recently unveiled.

She doesn’t eat fish, no surprise there, but when asked what would be a good choice, she says that fast growing, bottom of the food chain, plant eating fish that can be raised are good, such as catfish, carp and tilapia, if you know where they were raised, that is.

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EcoFacts: Greenwashing, Part I

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

This morning, I used my Oasis dishwashing liquid (which I use for general cleaning) and Desert Essence shampoo. At the moment, I am writing my ecofact.

Am I greenwashing?

greenwashingIt is true, greenwashing is ever-present in our culture, our marketing, our purchase decisions. If you walk down the aisles in a drug store or supermarket you are invited to buy many things advertised or labeled as gently cleansing, healthy, organic, natural,  effective in all good ways. Images, font styles, colors, words all collaborate to prompt our desire for them, because we will be better off with them. How often do you look at the ingredients?  I rarely take those walks because I am depressed knowing that millions of these items are sold daily, going into us, down our drains and finally becoming part of our environment, and at times bioaccumulating, not going away.  Okay, I’m an econut, granted.

A few of the many unhealthful things in those long ingredient lists:

  • Triclosan, found in antibacterial soaps, some toothpastes, and more
  • Cocamide DEA is a foaming agent  in shampoos, soaps, etc.
  • Oxybenzone in sunscreens, found in more than 1200 products

But for number of products containing it, the clear winner is FRAGRANCE. in virtually everything, and whose chemical makeup is not disclosed e.g. the shampoo I used this morning, and Ivory soap. Both are great products, except possibly for the fragrance in them, since it is an unknown.

Encouraging news happens though. Johnson & Johnson is taking baby steps with its “No more tears shampoo, now with no formaldehyde”. Walmart and Target are pressuring suppliers to reduce harmful ingredients. “Proctor & Gamble has promised to eliminate phthalates and triclosan…by the end of this year.” And the number of dangerous products that are produced in the EWG database keeps growing.

Europe has its EU ecolabel for its citizens to be able to quickly identify products whose environmental claims have been certified.

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EcoFacts: Down the Drain

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Yes, usually the water we drink, two thirds of us anyway, has been fairly scrubbed clean, still containing minerals, some chlorine and fluoride and traces of other things. All the rest of that water we use in our showers, sinks, toilets and washers goes down the drain and to wastewater treatment plants before being released into our rivers, lakes, and oceans.

67449712_480x480_fWhat’s in that water? Pretty much every thing in our cupboards, or on those shelves in the supermarkets, big box and drug stores, it eventually goes down our drains – air products such as dyes and the plastic stuff that holds our styles firmly in place, those exfoliants with plastic beads in them, cosmetics, toilet cleaners, oven cleaners, Raid, detergents of all kinds, nylon and polyester threads, clothing dyes, fabric softeners, fabric brighteners, prescription drugs and other meds (not only flushed in pill form but in our pee), paints, solvents, et al – some of these things are nasty and do not make for good drinking by any living creature. And not all of them can be removed in water or sewage treatment plants.

Most of the chemicals in these products are not tested for safety by any regulators.

We all live downstream. The water we use today was used a million years ago, but only in the last hundred or so have there been constantly newly manufactured chemicals, untested, in the products that we use and send flowing down the drains.

What can we do? We can choose to clear our homes of toxic or suspicious products by disposing of them at a local hazardous waste center. And from this new year on, we can choose to buy things that have more comprehendible lists of ingredients. More on this later.

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EcoFacts: Santa Barbara is at 19% of Normal Rainfall, Lake Cahuma at 40% of Capacity

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Rain and snow supply much of the water we use, the runoff continuously filling freshwater bodies – lakes, rivers and reservoirs – in normal or wet seasons. That water is then filtered and treated before pouring out of our faucets and showers, flushing our toilets. About half of the U.S. population relies on this, the other half on water from groundwater supplies and aquifers, stored in natural formations underground and pumped to the surface. Groundwater supplies are rapidly being depleted, more for irrigation than anything, and most of that, for livestock feed.  Certain industries such as mining and fracking use lots of water too.

Some recent news on our water supplies:

Today, more than a quarter million people in W. Virginia cannot drink, cook with or bathe with any water, thanks to  a chemical spill  from a Freedom Industries plant that produces chemicals for the coal industry.

Can you imagine that it became a good idea to fill facial and body cleansers with tiny plastic beads to scrub and freshen your skin? So where do they go from there? Down the drain and into our (fresh) water supplies and the oceans, ingested by fish and remaining for decades. The Great Lakes are inundated with them, but of course they are everywhere now.

One of the largest bodies of water in the U.S., the Ogallala Aquifer, will be gone if withdrawals continue at the current rate. It is hoped that advanced irrigation practices can be applied to avoid this.

Last summer in Canada, toxic waste from the Alberta oil sands spilled and killed all forest and plant life, the leak affecting an area said to be the largest of its kind in North American history.

Here in Santa Barbara we are currently at 19% of normal rainfall, with Lake Cachuma at 40% capacity.

The theme of this year’s World Water Day on March 22nd is Water and Energy, working to increase awareness and policy dialogue on their interdependence, globally.

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EcoFacts: Santa Barbara Water

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsHow about clean and fresh to begin the new year? Works for me. And as I’m visiting a place that gets a lot of rain, I took a truly luxurious bath today. Ahhhh. So fundamental to life and yet it’s a connection we always feel even in this crazy, often disconnected world.  What pleasure water brings – a drink of fresh tasting water when thirsty, or going for a swim – diving into it and feeling that glorious, anti-gravity like sensation, your body being buoyed up, being held by this liquid wonder – a hot shower to start the day or ending a dirty and tiring one. Fresh water has always flowed from the mountains or come from the ground, but when cities grew in relatively recent human history, infrastructure became needed to keep our wastes from our water supply, and to recycle the water we have.

Santa Barbara county is in a drought and its dwindling water supplies are tapped mostly by agriculture, not much industry or hydroelectric power in these parts. In 2010, residents in Santa Barbara proper used around  110 gallons per day, per person, a little less than 10 years before.  In Montecito (estate land, lots of landscaping, for those not local) they used 305 gallons per day, a 50% increase from a decade before.

By 2020, Californians will have to reduce their domestic water use by 20%.

Here are some water use numbers for the U.S. as a whole:

  • Domestic water use is less than 10% of total and is 300 gallons per day per household, 80-100 gallons per day, per person.
  • Of that, close to half is for toilets and showers.
  • Leaks account for nearly 14% of all domestic water use!

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EcoFacts: Energy and Optimism for the New Year

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Eco FactsThe new year approaches, such a great time for hope, optimism, and of course, action! Even if we can not insure against dirty energy, climate disasters and a rush to grab every possible resource before it’s gone, we can still, in our own varied ways, work towards the positive change needed to avert future losses, to end waste, to bring forth a more circular economy rather than the take, make, and dispose of model we’ve had.   Thank goodness lots of our youth are. Environmental programs at the college level have burgeoned in the last decade. I am constantly meeting people who pursue these studies, in the sciences, engineering, in city planning and industrial consultation and design, in literature and journalism. Kudos and thanks for them all, as they will make our world a better place.

And some energy news to boost your energy level:

A new rooftop solar system has been installed every 4 minutes in the U.S. in 2013. We are surpassing Germany with solar capacity, still behind China and Japan.

The utilities are sore about losing profits, but in Arizona, the solar customers won a battle with a major utility trying to levy big fees on solar customers. They wanted $50 per month, and got $5 instead.

ExxonMobil, the most profitable company in the U.S., now openly acknowledges the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, and is budgeting to pay for their carbon pollution.

Congrats to Massachusetts for being the most energy efficient state, thanks to its Green Communities Act of 2008, which is still promoting energy efficiency as its First Fuel and bringing more renewables into the mix.


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EcoFacts: Winter Solstice

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

wintersolsticoakkingWinter solstice time. The sun is low in the sky, the shadows long on the ground, and in Santa Barbara the early sunsets are beautiful.

On Saturday the 21st, the sun will rise here at 7:02am and set at 4:53pm.*  not bad, nearly 10 hours of light on our shortest day. We have it so easy here, with our bountiful winter farmers markets.

In northern Europe where yule and midwinter celebrations have been happening for millennia, they sure did have reason to feast and drink, to celebrate the beginning of the lengthening of the days, while cold and darkness prevailed and no crops are growing. More light and warmth to come meant hope and renewal, the cycle beginning again, new life.

On this day in Rovaniemi Finland the sun rises at 11:08 am and sets a bit over two hours later at 1:22 pm. My mother’s parents were Finnish. She and I were able to visit Finland together long ago, late summer. I’ll never forget the bus driver pulling over suddenly, somewhere in Lapland, so that we, the two American tourists, could get a better look at the reindeer near the road. But it was summer then. To imagine those long nights happening now, what a life! It would be fascinating to experience a few weeks of them … some time.

Moving down to the southern hemisphere, in Buenos Aires Argentina, whose southern latitude is very close to our northern one (around 34.5 degrees), it is bright and warm, summer solstice time. On December 21st the sunrise is at 5:37 am and the sun will set at 8:06 pm.

*The sun will continue to rise later for a couple of weeks, but it is is already beginning to set later.

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