Week of 10/29/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What kinds of home improvements could I do that would make my house healthier and more environmentally friendly?

—Elizabeth Bram, via e-mail

Most homes are not lacking in ways they can be healthier for family and kinder to the environment. For one, indoor air quality is a serious problem affecting millions of homes. Studies show that air within homes can be more seriously polluted than the air outdoors—even in the largest and most industrialized cities.

According to Glenn Haege, a master handyman who hosts a national radio show on home repair, as our homes and apartments have become more energy efficient and airtight, "humidity levels from cooking and breathing tend to increase, causing mold and mildew." Harmful chemicals, he says, from construction materials, insulation, furniture, carpeting, padding, paints, solvents and household cleaners, drawn by this moist atmosphere, combine to contaminate the indoor air which then stays trapped inside.

The first step in remedying this problem is to test your indoor air. Pure Air and Envirologix, among others, sell inexpensive and easy-to-use indoor-air quality testing kits. Once you get an idea of the contaminants floating around your home, you can get to work replacing the offending sources accordingly. Green superstores such as the Environmental Home Center, Green Building Supply and Oikos offer a wealth of greener and healthier building supplies and materials. Also, BuildingGreen.com offers a free online "GreenSpec" database with detailed listings for over 2,000 environmentally preferable building products.

Materials outside the home can also contribute to health problems. One example is pressure-treated lumber, which contains a form of cyanide to keep pests away. Kids who play on backyard jungle gyms and decks made of such material can develop rashes and skin infections. Cedar wood is a naturally pest-resistant alternative that, while more expensive, is a kinder-gentler option that will stand the test of time.

Other ways to green-up the home include replacing traditional incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient compact fluorescents, as well as switching out conventional hot water heaters in favor of solar or on-demand tankless versions. And for saving on water, replacing traditional showerheads and toilets with pressurized low-flow alternatives can save gallons per day while generating cost savings on utility bills. Likewise, capturing rainwater and shower "gray-water" to irrigate the garden is another smart move.

Do-it-yourselfers can find hundreds of websites offering tips on green building and repair. Glenn Haege's MasterHandyman.com and NaturalHandyMan.com both offer a plethora of articles and links and are good resources if you're looking to improve your own handy skills while staying true to your green ideals. Two helpful books are: Green Remodeling by David Johnston and Kim Master; and Green Building Materials: A Guide to Product Selection and Specification by Ross Spiegel and Dru Meadows. For less handy homeowners, finding a handyman well versed in green building issues might be a better way to go. The Natural Handyman Network offers a free online search tool that should offer some promising leads.

CONTACTS: MasterHandyman.com, www.masterhandyman.com; BuildingGreen.com, www.buildinggreen.com; Envirologix, www.envirologix.com; Environmental Home Center, www.environmentalhomecenter.com; Green Building Supply, www.greenbuildingsupply.com; Oikos, www.oikos.com; The Natural Handyman Network, www.naturalhandyman.com.


Dear EarthTalk: What do you think of those "waste to energy" plants used by cities to generate power?

—Christine Ramadhin, Queens, NY

Waste-to-energy (WtE) facilities, which generate power by burning trash, have been in widespread operation in the U.S. and Europe since the 1970s and are considered by environmental advocates to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand they get rid of garbage without adding to already-stressed landfills and with the added benefit of contributing electricity to the power grid. On the other hand, they do generate toxic pollution, usually as a result of burning vinyl and plastics.

WtE facilities evolved out of basic incinerator technology that simply burns trash and reduces it to ash and smoke. Waste-to-energy plants instead use the garbage to fire a huge boiler. When the garbage "fuel" is burned, it releases heat that turns water into steam. The high-pressure steam turns the blades of a turbine generator to produce electricity.

In the U.S. and Europe, environmental laws regulate WtE plants, typically requiring them to use various anti-pollution devices to keep both harmful gases and particulate pollution (fine bits of dust, soot and other solid materials) out of the air. However, the particles captured are then mixed with the ash that is removed from the bottom of the waste-to-energy plant's furnace when it is cleaned. Environmentalists contend that this toxic ash, which can include dangerous heavy metals, may actually present more of an environmental problem than the airborne emissions themselves, as it usually ends up in landfills where it can leak into and contaminate soil and groundwater.

According to Greenpeace International, WtE facilities are also among the largest sources of dioxin emissions in industrialized countries. Dioxin is a by-product of burning polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other plastics, and has been linked to cancer and other health problems. Greenpeace advocates for phasing out WtE facilities in favor of improving recycling rates that reduce the waste stream in the first place.

Currently about 600 WtE facilities are in operation around the world. According to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, an industry trade group, the United States is home to 98 such plants operating in 29 states. These facilities manage about 13 percent of America's total trash output. In Canada, where landfill space is more abundant, WtE has failed to catch on, with only a few such facilities across the country. WtE has caught on more so in smaller technologically advanced countries such as Japan, Sweden, Denmark, France and Switzerland, where landfill space is at a premium.

Recent improvements in the energy efficiency and environmental impact of WtE facilities means that the technology promises to play a larger role globally in years to come, especially as crowded developing countries start to jump on the bandwagon.

CONTACTS: National Solid Wastes Management Association, www.nswma.org; Greenpeace Incineration Campaign, www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/incineration.