Dear EarthTalk: Isn't the interest in electric cars and plug-in hybrids going to spur increased reliance on coal as a power source? And is that really any better than gasoline/oil in terms of environmental impact?
—Graham Rankin, via e-mail
It's true that the advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil fuel—oil, from which gasoline is distilled—for an even dirtier one: coal, which is burned to create electricity.
The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury—a known neurotoxin—into Americans" air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.
Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal, while the figure is estimated to be around 70 percent in China. As for Europe, the United Kingdom gets more than a third of its electricity from coal, while Italy plans to double its consumption of coal for electricity production within five years to account for some 33 percent of its own electricity needs. Several other countries in Europe, where green sentiment runs deep but economics still rule the roost, are also stockpiling coal and building more power plants to burn it in the face of an ever-increasing thirst for cheap and abundant electricity.
On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world's carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.
Some analysts expect that existing electricity capacity in the U.S. may be enough to power America's electric cars in the near future, but don't rule out the possibility of new coal plants (or new nuclear power plants) coming on line to fill the gap if we don't make haste in developing alternate sources for generating electrical energy. And while proponents of energy efficiency believe we can go a long way by making our electric grids "smarter" through the use of monitoring technologies that can dole out power when it is most plentiful and cheap (usually the middle of the night), others doubt that existing capacity will be able to handle the load placed on even an intelligent "smart grid" distribution network.
Environmentalists—as well as many politicians and policymakers—maintain that the only viable, long-term solution is to spur on the development of renewable energy sources. Not long ago, the concept of an all-electric car charged up by solar power or some other form of clean renewable energy was nothing but a pipe dream. Today, though, such a scenario is within the realm of the possible, but only if everyone does their part to demand that our utilities bring more green power on line.
Dear EarthTalk: Are there any health hazards associated with the use of the new silicone bake ware and cooking utensils? I have found information associated with the hazards/benefits of Teflon and other cookware but nothing on the use of silicone.
—Jean McCarthy, Sebastian, FL
With all the negative press about Teflon and about metals leaching out of pots and pans, consumers are on the lookout for cookware that's easy-to-clean and doesn't pose health concerns. Silicone, a synthetic rubber made of bonded silicon (a natural element abundant in sand and rock) and oxygen, is increasingly filling this niche. The flexible yet strong material, which has proven popular in muffin pans, cupcake liners, spatulas and other utensils, can go from freezer to oven (up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit), is non-stick and stain-resistant, and unlike conventional cookware, comes in a range of bright and cheery colors.
But some wonder if there is dark side to silicone cookware. Anecdotal reports of dyes or silicone oil oozing out of overheated silicone cookware pop up on Internet posts, as do reports of odors lingering after repeated washings. Also, silicone's image may be forever tainted by problems associated with silicone gel breast implants—some women with earlier generations of these implants experienced capsular contracture, an abnormal immune system response to foreign materials. And while theories about silicone implants" link to breast cancer have since been debunked, the damage to silicone's reputation lives on.
It's sad to say, but since the use of silicone in cookware is fairly new, there has not been much research into its safety for use with food. Back in 1979 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that silicon dioxides—the basic elements in silicone cookware—were generally recognized as safe to use even in food-grade contexts. But the first silicone cookware (silicone spatulas) didn't start to show up on store shelves until a decade later, and the FDA hasn't conducted any follow-up studies to determine whether silicone can leach out of cookware and potentially contaminate food. For its part, Canada's health agency, Health Canada, maintains that food-grade silicone does not react with food or beverages or produce any hazardous fumes, and as such is safe to use up to recommended temperatures.
Consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd, who steers clear of Teflon due to health concerns, is bullish on silicone cookware after investigating potential toxicity. "I tried to find some information on the health effects of silicone rubber, but it was not listed in any of the toxic chemical databases I use," she reports, adding that she also sampled material safety data on several silicone rubbers manufactured by Dow Corning (which makes some 700 variations). "All descriptions I read of silicone rubber describe it as chemically inert and stable, so it is unlikely to react with or leach into food, nor outgas vapors." She adds that silicone "is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste, and while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use."
So while most of us will probably not have a problem with silicone cookware, those with chemical sensitivities might want to stay away until more definitive research has been conducted. In the meantime, cast iron and anodized aluminum cookware remain top choices for those concerned about harmful elements leaching into their cooked foods.
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