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EcoFacts: Cool Man

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

What is the state of air-conditioning, you might ask?  Well, it’s been a warmer summer than usual, so I did.

“Two-thirds of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners use about 5% of all the electricity produced in the United States at an annual cost of more than $11 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air each year — an average of about two tons for each home with an air conditioner.”
air-conditioning-furnace-repair-installationThe electricity in the U.S. used for air conditioning is more than all of the electricity used on the continent of Africa. As the world gets warmer and incomes rise, more energy will be used to cool homes, cars and buildings. Sales of air conditioning units are increasing every year, China will soon surpass us in number of units employed…and India is a very warm place.

The refrigerants used in air conditioners now no longer damage the ozone layer, but are still extremely potent greenhouse gases. The EU has banned the ones currently being used. The EPA is working towards progress in this realm, by approving new more climate friendly refrigerants.

Meanwhile here are some ways to use less carbon based cooling. And, Umbra of Grist suggested wearing your clothes right out of the washer and letting them dry while on you!

EcoFacts: Great Unseen Waters

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

19125The water we use not only falls from above, in rain and snowmelt. Ever more critically, it flows from under us. Aquifers sometimes supply rivers, lakes, recharging them from below. Wells are drilled into them. Some are ancient, geologically sealed lakes deep under the surface of the earth, filled with pure clean “fossil water“. In many parts of the world, water that is thousands of years old is continuously being drawn to supply drinking water, to irrigate farmland or for mining and industrial practices, as the rain and mountains do not supply enough.

This water from below supplies an estimated 35% of the world’s needs. In California, it is currently 60%, much more than usual. Texas gets 80% of its water from aquifers. The amounts that remain are as yet unknown, but Nasa gravitational data indicates that a third of the world’s largest aquifers are highly stressed, they are being depleted at a much greater rate than they can be recharged. California’s Central Valley is one, others are in the Middle East, Africa and China. The Ogallala Aquifer lies under 8 midwest states, supplying as much as 30% of U.S. agriculture. It is being depleted at an annual rate equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers.

So, this drought culture we Californians are living in? We’re in it for the long haul. We can no longer afford to waste water. I hope the farmers are beginning to understand this.

EcoFacts: Ban the Beads!

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

microbeadWhat a good idea, to load a bunch o’ bits of plastic into skin washes and toothpaste to make us cleaner, eh?  Maybe not. The problem is lots of us enjoy scrubbing away the dead stuff to leave our skin glowing and radiant!  So thousands of personal care products contain polyethylene (PE) or other forms of plastic, to better exfoliate. And as usual, economics has won out and plastic is a lot cheaper to add to something than natural alternatives,  e.g. bits of clay, coffee, cocoa, salt, sugar, ground nuts, seeds, etc..

It’s been happening for many years, and like everything else that goes down our drains, those billions of bits end up in lakes and oceans  These tiny microbeads are then ingested be marine creatures. They also act as magnets for other toxins, making them even less healthy to eat!

Dentists cried out about them in toothpaste, it turned out they were getting lodged between gums and teeth. Crest is phasing them out  Word is spreading about facial scrubs, etc. like microbeads in our waters. But legislation and formulation changing takes a long time. Better to just buy smart  and throw the stuff you have in the landfill, rather than to keep using it. Here are some products that contain the beads.

Several states have passed bans and others are in process, like California, whose Assembly just passed one (only Republicans voted nay). A Federal bill is also in the works. NGOS from 33 countries are supporting these bans.

N.B. The term “biodegradable PE” in the ingredients lists is misleading, as the bits would only biodegrade under certain conditions, not being the ones in the ocean!

EcoFacts: Sunscreens

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Although the Vitamin D given to us by the sun is necessary, our sun exposure has caused skin cancer rates to triple in the last few decades. UVA rays, always present during daylight hours and penetrating clouds and glass, cause much of the aging changes in the skin.  UVB rays, much more present in summer and midday, cause sunburn, which is directly linked to cancer. Both can be damaging.

sunscreen-clipart-comp-clipart-screenshot2Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both, and usually contain both physical mineral radiation barriers – zinc and titanium – and chemical ones such as oxybenzone that absorb the radiation. The mineral ones are often produced as nano particles, making them less white on the skin.Oxybenzone scores worst among the chemical ones. The great majority of all sunscreens available offer inferior protection or unhealthful ingredients.

Once sunscreens leave our skin they enter the environment, thousands of tons per year, where their effects are not yet fully known, but they “have been shown to damage coral, accumulate in fish and the environment and disrupt hormones in fish and amphibians.” Mineral ones might seem safer but their nano versions are possibly the least understood in their effects. Sunscreens are now banned in some eco marine parks, to protect these fragile environments.

At our recent Earth Day, I found “All Good” kid’s sunscreen which appears to be mostly not bad!  In any case, EWG’s sunscreen guide  has tons of useful info, and covering up with clothing is the best protection of all.

EcoFacts: The Sun and Us

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The sun marks our days, it brings us joy and beauty, gives us vitamin D, and in the last few decades, worry.

sunAlthough it is a primary source of all life, some of its radiation – UV, ultraviolet – can be harmful at high levels to many life forms (PDF). In the 70s it became understood that certain common chemicals (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer, which absorbed some of this UV radiation. Regulations were enacted to slow and cease production of these, resulting in a gradual regeneration, in the last few decades, of this beneficial layer, although not to its previous levels.

UV radiation that is not absorbed in the atmosphere (including by ozone) is highest when the sun is high in the sky. When lower, the angle is more dramatic, the pathway longer and there is more atmosphere to absorb it. It is also increased by reflection, which occurs with snowy and sandy surfaces.

More vitamin D is produced when the sun is high in the summer months. For those who might enjoy nude sunbathing, it takes 1 minute of 100% body exposure for our bodies to produce sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. For the rest of us,10 minutes of 10% exposure suffices.

Incidence of cataracts have increased along with UV radiation, and, of course, skin cancers, which have increased dramatically in the last few decades because of the ozone layer, but not coincidentally also due to the tremendous rise in tanning salons over the same period. Those who use them have a much greater risk of getting skin cancer.

Next up: sunscreens.

EcoFacts: Moral Grounds

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Discussions around the globe have been sparked by the Pope’s much anticipated book length document on climate change: On Care for our Common Home

Other spiritual leaders are responding:

The ecological crisis is essentially a spiritual problem… The proper relationship between humanity and the earth or its natural environment has broken with a fall, both outwardly and within us…” (John Zizioulas)

“We are — as never before — in a position to choose charity over greed and frugality over wastefulness in order to affirm our moral commitment to our neighbor and our respect for the Earth. Basic human rights such as access to safe water, clean air and sufficient food should be available to everyone without distinction or discrimination…” Easter Orthodox Church and Anglican Communion)

pope-environmentIs there a moral imperative to live responsibly, in general, and with regard to our environment? The reason so many in the developed world do not, I believe, is that modern life encourages this disconnect, with the drive toward maximum convenience in the shortest time, and immediate gratification. Really, who would not want these when offered them?  The harsh realities behind many of the sources of our needs and pleasures do not invite consideration, we are asked to look the other way.  And, the economic reality is that resources are too cheap for us to be frugal with them.  It’ll be a rough road to a better world.

EcoFacts: The Flow of Oil

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

SB-Oil-Spill-oily-beachWhen the inevitable oil spills occur, it is the thick black stuff flowing onto the ground and waters that gets our attention, and those heart wrenching images of beaches lined with the stuff, of the dead and dying sea mammals and birds.

We hear little about the associated substances in that oil flowing through the pipelines that are dangerous and harmful.  In the last weeks here in Santa Barbara, good people wanted to rush in and help – one figures, so what if we get some oil on us?  At a meeting of the World Business Academy (renewable energy focused) last night, we heard from Becca Claassen, a local community activist, who was a mile from the spill site and felt extreme toxic effects for two days, just from breathing the fumes.  I was on a train going North a couple of weeks ago, and got a closeup view of the cleanup and staging grounds, and the hundreds of people wearing hazmat suits. Here is story from the front lines of the cleanup.

Much of the crude oil that is extracted is too thick to flow through pipelines and requires diluting agents called diluents. As with fracking, oil and gas companies want to keep the nature of these agents proprietary information, but they include benzene, toluene and xylene and are highly toxic, often carcinogenic.

Reports of these substances at and near spill sites and associated health warnings are numerous. Waters near the Refugio spill are currently being tested. Check soon, for the results.

EcoFacts: Santa Barbara Drinking Water

Column by Barbara Hirsch
My journey to find drinking water that I can really enjoy:

faucetIf it isn’t obvious, I cannot buy water in plastic bottles unless forced to, not liking plastic or BPA or the business of it. I do not like the taste of Santa Barbara tap water, nor do I like its chlorine. I admit to buying water from the corner market water dispensers in my 3 gallon glass bottles. But I live in droughtland and have learned a few things, way too late, about that water. Having had some good tasting filtered tap water at a super eco friend’s place, I decided to make the change, but how best? The research began.

Concerns in water are these: mineral content, pH, pathogens, chlorine, fluoride, pesticides, arsenic, lead, mercury, chemicals and more.

Municipal water systems generally produce safe drinking water, usually with the help of chlorine, as does ours here in SB. But we don’t have heavy industry and crop spraying affecting our rain, lake and groundwater as some areas do.

Reverse osmosis (RO) water is what you get from those big dispensers where zillions fill their 1 or 5 gallon bottles. Also those under the counter home systems that have two to four cartridges which are not recyclable and need regular replacing. These systems waste from 1 to 10 gallons for every gallon we drink !!!. They do remove most contaminants, but the good things in tap water – minerals – are also removed, and the water becomes more acidic. Demineralized acidic water is unhealthful. If we’re to drink many glasses of it daily, that is just silly.

The simpler carbon filter systems – faucet or pitcher, like Brita – improve the water, but the filters must be replaced frequently and unless you want to send them in for recycling, think about the number of them in the landfill!

I recently decided that I had to go the filtered tap route – without RO.  I’ve purchased a Berkey gravity fed system that is so effective at purification, it can actually purify pond water, but leaves the minerals in. The filters can be used for thousands of gallons of water. So if our city water system gives out for some catastrophic reason or other, you can all come on over, just bring your pond.

EcoFacts: Good Not Bad

bagsColumn by Barbara Hirsch

I saw a Whole Foods bag that said “Buy Goods, Not Bads” and was struck by this truly great marketing slogan. In a few words, it wants people to see how their market is different from regular supermarkets. But it could also have a greater impact. If focused upon, it might actually cause a pause… in the normal flow of buying, while walking down the aisle of a store, a questioning.

Most certainly, Whole Foods does not only sell products that are good from an objective environmental or social set of standards, that would be impossible in this age. The difference is that shoppers there are more critical than average and hold the business to a higher standard. And they are willing to pay the price for it. Whole Foods and other natural foods stores must deliberate, must be more conscious of the products they offer.

The term “goods”, meaning moveable property, merchandise or wares, comes from an era (13th c.) when most everything that was purchased or traded was needed, e.g. a tool or warmer clothing. Population and technology were such that things could be mined, grown and harvested at a scale that didn’t cause massive environmental degradation. Chemistry (from 17th c. alchemy, natural physical process) was not a world of constant creation of new substances, and production thereof without regard to short or long term effects on health.

About that supermarket aisle –  walk down one and look for foods that are not unhealthfully processed, that do not have ingredients you cannot understand, that do not have unrecyclable packaging. The meat and fish aisle has little flesh of animals that were raised humanely, or caught sustainably and without tremendous loss of other lives (bycatch).  The produce aisle is virtually all grown with pesticides and chemical fertilizers, much is from across the globe and not particularly fresh. The dry goods aisle is filled with cleaning agents, bug killers and myriad other things whose use and disposal endanger our soil and water, also papers with little recycled content, and plastic things of every shape and use that could be around for centuries and yet are constantly replaced, etc., etc.

The term “consumer” in the 15th c. meant “one who squanders or wastes”.  Funny, it still does. Only now it is us all. So buying more consciously can only be a good thing, yes?

The Pope and Environmental Action

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

2015055818cardinalPope Francis’ closest adviser castigated conservative climate change skeptics in the United States Tuesday, blaming capitalism for their views. Speaking with journalists, Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga criticized certain “movements” in the United States that have preemptively come out in opposition to Francis’s planned encyclical on climate change. “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits”…

Pope Francis and the Vatican will soon publish an encyclical that he hopes will have influence on the upcoming U.N. climate meeting in Paris. Here are some of his words.

“Safeguard Creation,” he said. “Because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”

The consequences of climate change represent “a serious ethical and moral responsibility” and that the time for action is running out.

“Creation is not a property, which we can rule over at will; or, even less, is the property of only a few: Creation is a gift, it is a wonderful gift that God has given us, so that we care for it and we use it for the benefit of all, always with great respect and gratitude,” Francis said. “It is man who continuously slaps down nature.”I think man has gone too far… Thank God that today there are voices that are speaking out about this.

From a statement by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“The massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth’s climate and acidifies the world’s oceans. The warming and associated extreme weather will reach unprecedented levels in our children’s life times and 40% of the world’s poor, who have a minimal role in generating global pollution, are likely to suffer the most.”

“Human action which is not respectful of nature becomes a boomerang for human beings that creates inequality and extends what Pope Francis has termed “the globalization of indifference” and the “economy of exclusion”…