Photos, Philanthropy and Perfumed Pages

The Lowdown on Toxic Chemicals, Green Towns and Taming Allergies

What environmental hazards, if any, are associated with photography?

—Sarah, Ontario, Canada

While pictures may be worth a thousand words, they have, pardon the expression, a negative side. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that “many of the chemicals used to develop photographs are corrosive and can cause skin, eye and lung irritation.” Several of these, including catechin and p-phenylenediamine, rank high in “toxicity and persistence” on Environmental Defense's on-line scorecard. Stop baths and fixers also warrant extreme caution when used, and should never be handled casually.

Even so, the photo processing industry has made what EPA calls “significant environmental improvements” in reducing the use of toxic processing chemicals and silver used in film and plates. Silver discharge is strictly regulated, and companies like Canada-based Metafix manufacture systems to recover the precious metal.

If you happen to own a darkroom, Susan Shaw, author of Overexposure: Health Hazards in Photography, recommends avoiding inhalation of developer powders, wearing safety gloves and properly ventilating the room. EPA requires disposal of any unmixed chemicals through professional waste handlers—an even better solution is to donate supplies to a local school.

Another option is a digital camera, which renders chemicals unnecessary. Digital images also replace gelatin-based film, thereby reducing the use of animal products and all that plastic waste.


Kodak Environmental Services
Tel: (716) 477-3194

Is there anywhere small communities attempting to “green” themselves can turn for financial assistance?

—Mike Kuhn, Marysville, PA

Sustainable communities are investments with great returns for towns and the environment, but the work involved can be daunting. Grants from federal sources like the EPA have funded such local efforts as sustainable housing redevelopment in Iowa, an eco-garden in Maryland and watershed management in Colorado. The agency kicked off its Innovative Community Partnerships (ICP) program with grants for 11 pilot projects this year, and its Brownfields Economic Redevelopment Initiative awards money for cleaning and revitalizing abandoned industrial areas. The Department of Agriculture, the Department of Energy and the Department of the Interior provide similar federal funding. Learn to write more competitive proposals with an on-line grant-writing tutorial at the EPA website.

Individual states also award various grants, so contact your state government for more information. Some nonprofit organizations, like The Nature Conservancy and Environmental Defense, provide helpful information on building sustainable communities, and may be able to suggest more funding sources.

If these avenues fail, try less traditional routes: Call local schools and suggest a partnership—getting students involved saves money while teaching valuable environmental lessons. Appeal to area corporations, which often invest in their communities, or sponsor a drive to involve residents. After all, an important part of sustainability is community-wide commitment to a healthy environment.


EPA's Development, Community and Environment Division
Tel: (202) 260-2750

President's Council on Sustainable Development
Tel: (202) 456-1414

My eyes, throat and lungs burn when I read magazines. Are there any chemicals I could be reacting to?

—Kathleen Blais, Sabattus, ME

The most likely allergen lurking in magazine and newspaper print is the ink, according to the Human Ecology Action League (HEAL), a nonprofit that focuses on environmentally related health issues. But it's hard to pinpoint a more specific culprit. The diverse chemicals found in ink go by such intimidating names as epoxy resin, Cl+ Me isothiazolinone and p-tert-Butylphenol. HEAL recommends soy-based publications, far less likely to cause health problems for readers.

Magazines with perfume samples can also be problematic. “Postal customers are exposed to them, whether they wish to be or not,” says Louise Kosta, author of Fragrance and Health. Some magazines offer perfume-free subscriptions by request, and the Magazine Publishers of America (212-872-3700) is interested in hearing from affected persons.

Glossy papers, which frequently contain formaldehyde, can spur allergic reactions as well. Allergy sufferers may use reading boxes (ventilated containers that fan the enclosed magazine) or simply let the publication air out. While time-consuming, this latter method does alleviate the severity of most reactions.

The Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America (AAFA) warns that self-diagnosis of severe symptoms could be dangerous. It is best to seek the opinion of a qualified health professional.


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