Saying It with Flowers

Last summer U.S., Russian and Ukrainian defense ministers planted sunflowers on the site of a former Soviet missile silo, celebrating the Ukraine’s nuclear-free status. Little did they know that the sunflowers were also decontaminating the soil, removing heavy metals and toxins accumulating in the area.

At a recent American Institute of Chemical Engineers meeting, scientists began discussing the results of using sunflowers as a cost-effective alternative to detoxifying water and soil near nuclear facilities. Scientists discovered that sunflowers floating atop water on Styrofoam rafts successfully removed toxic elements, including uranium, cesium, and strontium, from highly-contaminated waters. Using rhizofiltration (allowing plant roots to absorb the metals), engineers from Phytotech, a New Jersey-based biotechnology company, and Rutgers University concluded that sunflowers were the best candidates for toxic clean-ups.

Results from field tests at a former Department of Energy uranium-processing plant in Ashtabula, Ohio and the Chernobyl nuclear accident site showed that sunflowers submerged in contaminated water decreased uranium concentrations by 95 percent within the first 24 hours, making levels lower than EPA standards.

Burt Ensley, president of Phytotech, estimates that the cost of removing toxic elements with sunflowers would average $2 to $6 per thousand gallons treated including disposal costs, instead of $20 to $80 per 1,000 gallons for conventional chemical treatments.

Known as phytoremediation, the process concentrates toxic metals in the roots, stalks and leaves of plants which can be easily harvested and destroyed—removing the immediate threat to the environment. “Phytoremediation offers us a way to reclaim many of our urban sites lost to toxic contamination,” says Dr. Michael Blaylock of Phytotech.

This spring, Indian mustard will be used to clean up a former battery recycling plant in New Jersey. If the results are encouraging, Phytotech believes plants will have a bright future as pollution fighters. CONTACT: Phytotech, One Deer Park Drive, Suite 1, Monmouth Junction, NJ 08852, tel. (908) 438-0900.


The dangers to young children posed by the peeling and flaking of lead paint are well known, but few people know about another source of lead in the household—imported miniature Venetian blinds, known as miniblinds.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently issued a warning that imported miniblinds contain polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which degrades to lead dust after being exposed to sunlight and heat. Lead is added during production to stabilize plastic materials in the blinds.

And, indeed, hundreds of children from newborns to six year-olds have been found with high levels of lead in their blood due to ingestion from contact with the dusty miniblinds. The CPSC reported that a one-inch square area of dust on the blinds provides enough lead over a 30-day period to damage a child’s health significantly, possibly causing learning disabilities, mental and physical retardation, and kidney failure. And while 25 million vinyl miniblinds are imported from China, Taiwan, Mexico and Indonesia each year, risks to children continue to climb.

According to Greenpeace, which recently spearheaded a campaign alerting the public to PVC miniblind dangers, “The California Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of lead-tainted PVC miniblinds, citing the companies’ failure to warn consumers about the presence of lead in the product.” Other lawsuits are also underway, including cases in Arizona, North Carolina, New Jersey and West Virginia.

Greenpeace advises owners of imported miniblinds to return them. “It’s best not to purchase any brand of PVC blinds,” says Greenpeace’s Marcelo Furtado. “Cloth blinds are available at most major retailers.” Greenpeace also advises reporting to authorities stores that still sell the blinds without cautionary labels. And “make sure your schools, daycare centers, churches and other community institutions know about these dangers,” Furtado warns.

According to CPSC Chairman Ann Brown, “New, non-lead formulations are now available in most stores and should sell in the same price range. Families with small children should opt for labeled ‘lead-free’ varieties.”

Blinds which have been found to contain lead include Prisma Jencraft, Color Classics, Lotus & Windoware, Kmart MB (generic), KirschCooper, Jencraft, Spectrim/Newell, Basic Trends, Ultima MBWindow Concepts, and Sunsations 1” Light Filtering blinds.

The CPSC’s warning follows international measures, especially in Europe, to phase out PVCs because of their incineration and health dangers. As Sweden, Germany and Austria are prohibiting the use of PVCs in construction and other applications, Denmark is considering a total phase-out of PVCs by the year 2000. CONTACT: Greenpeace, 1436 U Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, tel. (800) 326-0959; Consumer Product Safety Commission, 4330 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814, tel. (800) 638-2772.


For the past two years, scientists, environmentalists and animal rightists have been collaboratively working toward a common goal: recognizing the legal rights of the great apes, whose genetic makeup and social structure are unarguably like our own. The collaboration resulted in The Great Ape Project-an idea which seeks to extend “the community of equals” beyond human beings to those most similar to us—chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans.

According to Australian philosophy professor Peter Singer, president of the project and co-editor of the accompanying book, The Great Ape Project: Equality Beyond Humanity, “The community of equals is the moral community within which the most basic ethical and legal principles apply to members. The right to life, the right not to be tortured, and the right not to be imprisoned without due process are concepts that now only apply to human beings.”

Singer, along with scientists from Australia and New Zealand, want to reclassify the great apes to the same species group as humans because of DNA similarities. Scientists now believe that classifications should be based on genetic make-up rather than outward appearance, and in the case of the great apes, the DNA similarities are too strong to ignore. Singer believes that “acknowledging that other animals are members of the same genus as ourselves will help remind people that we are animals, and will shrink the gulf that we imagine divides us from animals.”

Great ape species also share many of our emotional traits, says Singer: “They form close and lasting attachments with others, they show grief, they play, when taught sign language they tell lies, they solve complex problems, they plan for the future, they form political coalitions in order to ascend in the group’s hierarchy, they reciprocate favors, and they become angry.” They also make tools, tie knots, and recognize themselves in mirrors, traits which also distinguish humans from other species.

According to Australian sci

entist Simon Easteal of the John Curtin School of Medical Research, human DNA differs a mere 1.6 percent from that of chimpanzees; 1.7 percent from gorillas; and about two percent from orangutans.

Since the famous chimpanzee Washoe was first taught sign language in the 1970s by Dr. Roger Fouts, studies have shown that not only are chimpanzees capable of complex language skills using sign language, but they are also capable of actively teaching human-designed communication to their young. According to Dr. Fouts, “In terms of biochemical similarities based on blood research and genetic similarities, chimpanzees are actually closer to humans than they are to gorillas, even though all three primates are within one percent of each other.”

Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, and contributor to the project’s book, says that while humans admit that we are like apes, “We seldom realize that we are apes.” CONTACT: The Great Ape Project, P.O. Box 82366, Portland, OR 97282-0366, email:, World Wide Web homepage:


An air quality reform program recently initiated in Mexico City is churning out some ambitious projects and a lot of controversy.

Since 1992, in response to pervasive health problems plaguing the inhabitants of Mexico City—including illnesses brought on by excessive ozone, sulfur, suspended particles and carbon monoxide, the government has embarked on a series of plans to regulate factories and revamp a chaotic transportation system which is contributing to the dirty cloud hanging over the most populated city in the world.

According to the Environmental Ministry’s wide-reaching air reform plan initiated in 1995, residents of Mexico City saw 88 days when they were exposed to twice the maximum safety limit of ozone. According to Eduardo Palazuelos, Mexico City’s Secretary of the Environment, ozone represents the most significant threat to air quality over the city. Transportation problems heighten these levels, causing ozone proliferation with increased vehicle combustion.

Though the government has targeted transportation as the culprit, with vehicles causing 75 percent of the total emissions in the city, Palazuelos says departments have begun what they call an “environmentally friendly” overhaul by building hundreds of miles of new highway, including a 133-mile route encircling the Valley of Mexico, where the capital resides. The government also wants to improve its Metro service, building new Metro lines and replacing the often run-down shuttle buses that transport too few people and don’t meet emission standards.

But because the Transport Ministry is concentrating its efforts on the new highways, environmentalists don’t see much progress ahead. Alejandro Calvillo, director of Greenpeace Mexico’s Air Pollution Campaign, says, “It has been proven that more highways cause more automobile use and more contamination. We need to develop a transportation system that discourages individual automobile use.”

Palazuelos contends that the new highway will divert traffic from entering the city. On the contrary, Calvillo says diverting traffic to the new highway will not decrease total air pollution in the area, which is the goal of the improvements. He also believes that the new highway will create many more problems than it solves. “The highway is going through many forested parts of the valley. Developing over the forests will only add to the pollution problems, with less oxygen being produced. It will also cram more people into the valley, instead of moving them out.”

But locals see hope for 1997, when the capital will elect its first mayor, and the future administration will have the responsibility of making air-quality improvement a central issue. CONTACT: Greenpeace Mexico’s Air Pollution Campaign, Avenida Cuauhtemoc #946, Colonia, Narvarte, CP 03020, Mexico DF, Mexico, tel. 52-5-536-4167


Ranchers at Arizona’s 50,000-acre King’s Anvil Ranch are reusing scrap rubber tires to build dams to halt the flow of sediment carried north by rushing water. Believed to be the first of its kind in the U.S., the dam springing up near Tucson may hold the key to preventing soil erosion during the state’s rainy season in July and August in the 80-mile-long Brawley Wash.

More than 1,000 discarded passenger tires were used to construct the dam, which will not attempt to retain water, but rather keep torrential summer rains from eroding the wash—now 200 feet wide and 25 feet deep—even further.

Dr. Stuart Hoenig and Joshua Minyard of the University of Arizona seized upon the idea of using scrap tires because it was cheaper than using concrete, and the tires’ shape would aid in trapping sediment carried by rushing waters, while allowing water to pass through.

“The arroyos run deep and wild. You need to slow the water down and allow it to spread out. We’ve tried all sorts of barriers and nothing we could construct would hold,” King’s Ranch owner John King says. “We decided that a soil retention structure would slow erosion, giving the plants a chance to regenerate and heal the land.”

Construction of the dam began last June. Since then, several ranchers have made inquiries about building tire dams on their properties.

According to Ronald Stork, conservation director of Friends of the River, “Erosion of arroyos has been a problem all through the Southwest, due to 300 years of overgrazing. What was enormous grasslands is now sagebrush. If grasslands were built up, this wouldn’t happen. The water would move more slowly,” says Stork.

In the last decade, scrap tire recycling rates have skyrocketed, as tire manufacturers like Goodyear have been working to develop markets to reuse scrap tires. In 1985, only 10 percent of the scrap tires in the U.S. were being reused. By the end of 1996, scrap tire recovery rates increased to an estimated 95 percent, surpassing aluminum recycling rates. According to Andy Eastman of Goodyear, “There are many other uses for scrap tires that exist today and will evolve in the future, and each should be explored.” CONTACT: Friends of the River, 128 J Street, Second Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814, tel. (916) 442-3155.


Phone calls, flyers and word-of-mouth have been drawing attention to environmental justice issues-like the location of garbage incinerators in low-income, black communities—for decades. But now more than 100,000 online documents are devoted to environmental justice issues, activists are also turning to the World Wide Web for information and support.

EcoNet, part of the Institute of Global Communications’ network of activist-oriented sites, hosts the EcoJustice Network. It provides information on current issues “facing communities of color in the U.S.,” as well as contact information on activist groups, a bulletin board and calendar of eco-justice events and links to related websites. Other sites accessible via EcoNet include: The Indigenous Environmental Network, EPA’s Office

of Environmental Justice, The Cesar Chavez Web Page, Chicano-Latino Net, The Environmental Inequality Homepage, The South African Exchange Program on Environmental Justice, The Urban Habitat Program of the Earth Island Institute, the Southeast Alliance for Environmental Justice, and RTK NET, whose Right-to-Know (RTK) Network provides coverage of toxic, health and economic data, access to EPA documents, and an extensive bibliography.

The South Central Oklahoma Environmental Justice Resource Center, in addition to its original material (including an interesting newsletter), also hosts links to related sites, including documents, regional coverage and governmental resources. Explorative sites for Native American issues in addition to The Indigenous Environmental Network include Native Americans and the Environment and Native Americans and Environmental Justice.

Other sites focusing on minority issues include the Department of the Navy’s Environmental Justice Program, the Environmental Justice Database, the Whittier College Environmental Justice Project, and the Environmental Justice Clinic Homepage hosted by the Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

Since new sites are being added all the time, and addresses change, the most current information can be had by browsing Alta Vista or Excite by entering the search words “environmental justice.” And there’s online activity outside the World Wide Web, too, including the Usenet newsgroup CONTACT: The EcoJustice Network, Presidio Building 1012, First Floor, Torney Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94129-0904, tel. (415) 561-6100, e-mail:


As environmentalists rush to supplement or replace trees as a resource for making paper products, the popular “tree-free” choices hemp and kenaf are being edged aside by an unlikely but very promising recycled alternative: banana paper.

EARTH College, a Costa Rican university devoted to sustainable agriculture and ecological living, has joined the Siman Group, a major Central American paper manufacturer, to form the Costa Rica Natural Paper Company which produces 100 percent recycled paper made from 95 percent post-consumer paper fiber and five percent banana stalks. EARTH College students grow, harvest and process the banana stalks, which are later added to post-consumer paper fiber from El Salvador and made into recycled stationery, notepads, journals, cards, boxes, art supplies and envelopes. And no, it doesn’t smell like bananas, though the banana fiber gives it a very attractive texture.

EARTH College’s 756-acre banana plantation supplies the company with the needed banana fiber and the know-how to produce the paper, whose content is monitored by Scientific Certification Systems.

According to Alvaro Siman, of the Siman Group, “You don’t have to clear any forests because the waste fiber is a byproduct of agriculture.”

Students at EARTH College point out that for each ton of exported bananas, three tons of waste is produced. “Once the banana fruit is harvested, the stem becomes waste,” says school spokesperson Tracy Zimmerman. “The stem is generally removed at a packing plant requiring it to be transported to landfills.” Dumped in lots near rivers, the stalks deteriorate and are transported by currents until they clump together which, Zimmerman says, “inhibits boat travel and impacts the water’s oxygen content, often killing aquatic life.” Upon studying the dilemma of the banana stem waste, students began seeing value in recovering the stalks as a fiber source for paper. “We are also beginning work on making paper made out of pineapple, coffee and coconut fibers using the same process,” says Siman.

Banana paper products are now available at Kinko’s, C.R. Gibson and several eco-retailers throughout the U.S. EARTH College estimates that using one ton of banana fiber saves an estimated 17 trees. CONTACT: EARTH College, Apartado 4442-1000, San Jose, Costa Rica, tel. 011-506-255-2000.