Week of 3/21/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Why are environmentalists trying to get snowmobiles banned from national parks?

Deborah Beck, Ketchum, ID

According to the San Francisco, California-based Bluewater Network, which wants to ban snowmobile use in national parks, 250,000 snowmobiles are operated in America's park system each year, with some 60,000 snowmobiles zooming through Yellowstone National Park alone. Counting all snowmobile usage nationally, in and out of national parks, about 2.3 million take to the powder every year.

The main issue is the vehicle's two-stroke engine, which is a major polluter. According to Bluewater, the air pollution from these dirty machines is so bad that some Yellowstone Park Rangers now wear respirators to protect themselves. Further, these engines dump 25-30 percent of their fuel unburned out the tailpipe onto vegetation and soil and into the water and air. According to Katy Rexford, Public Lands Associate for Bluewater, snowmobiles dump more than 100,000 gallons of fuel and 2,500 gallons of oil into Yellowstone's ecosystem every year. Banning two-stroke engines in favor of four-stroke engines would make snowmobiles 80 percent cleaner, says Rexford.

But switching to four-stroke engines will not greatly affect the noise pollution. The piercing noise of snowmobiles is also at issue; studies have shown that snowmobiles can be heard 90 percent of the time in Yellowstone, thus destroying natural soundscapes and diminishing opportunities for more contemplative forms of recreation.

Another issue is their impact on wildlife: Canadian scientists found that the noise from snowmobiles disturbs animals up to 1,250 feet away. Even when restricted to approved and maintained trails, snowmobiles can push bison, wolves, elk, moose and bald eagles out of their preferred habitats.

CONTACT: Bluewater Network, (415) 544-0790, www.bluewaternetwork.org


Dear EarthTalk: Does eye mascara contain toxic ingredients?

Amber Galt, Madison, WI

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified many modern skin care, hair care and cosmetics ingredients as hazardous. Such ingredients can be absorbed into the body through the skin, and may be loaded with potential irritants, carcinogens, neurotoxins or hormone disrupters. The potential health problems associated with brand-name cosmetics are many and varied.

Some cosmetics companies throw petroleum distillates, shellac and other preservatives into the pot when stewing up a batch of lash thickener, says Kim Erickson in her book Drop-Dead Gorgeous: Protecting Yourself from the Hidden Dangers of Cosmetics. Ingredients like shellac and quaternium-22 can induce allergies; others, such as phenylmercuric acetate, may cause skin irritation and blisters. Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) restricts the use of phenylmercuric acetate, a mercury derivative, cosmetic manufacturers are not required to register with the FDA.

Eye products sometimes contain kohl, which is made of heavy metals such as antimony and lead. Also called al-kahl, kajal or surma, this color additive has been linked to lead poisoning in children and is not approved for cosmetic use in the U.S. However, the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) warns it can be found in imported mascaras.

Perhaps the most dangerous ingredient found in mascara is not meant to be included—bacteria. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, author of Eight Weeks to Optimum Health, airborne bacteria rush into the bottle every time you open it. Preservatives break down over time, losing their ability to prevent bacterial growth that can cause infection and, in rare cases, temporary or even permanent blindness. Doctors and beauty experts recommend replacing mascara every three months, no matter how much is left. Throw it out sooner if it develops an unusual texture or odor.

CONTACT: CFSAN Cosmetics Program, www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/cos-toc.html; Dr. Andrew Weil, www.drweil.com.