Week of 10/16/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Why do people consider the Endangered Species Act to be the country’s most important environmental law when it only protects a few hundred plant and animal species?

—Mark McGrath, Greenwich, CT

According to the latest tally by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), 745 plant and 523 animal species are listed as threatened or endangered in the United States. While these flora and fauna have benefited from Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections, environmental advocates point to the law’s far-reaching habitat protection provisions as key to preserving the nation’s overall environmental quality.

When a plant or animal is listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, federal officials must also designate critical habitat "essential to the conservation of the species." Today it is estimated that some 100 million acres of both private and public land across the U.S. are protected by the ESA from new development and resource extraction (mining, oil drilling) because they harbor one or more rare species.

Not everyone is happy with these provisions. Since the ESA became law in 1973, property owners have protested that restrictions on what they can do on their own private lands are unconstitutional. With some success, they have taken their grievances to court repeatedly, clogging the judicial system with appeal after appeal. Also, due to all these legal skirmishes, officials at the USFWS, which administers the law, complain of having to devote so many hours and resources to legal battles instead of field work.

Sympathetic to these legalistic concerns, the Bush administration has been pushing for the de-listing of some species whose numbers have improved in recent years—including bald eagles, gray wolves and grizzly bears. But critics say that the White House is more concerned with furthering its political agenda than in the welfare of the nation’s endangered species.

Meanwhile, House Resources Committee Chair Richard Pombo, a California Republican, has pushed a bill through the House that proposes to limit federal powers under the ESA. One controversial change the bill calls for is removal of many critical habitat designations. Another would require the government to compensate property owners for the costs of complying with regulations.

Recently, some 80 organizations, from the Sierra Club to Republicans for Environmental Protection, signed a letter to Congress urging them to leave the ESA intact. "Of the 1,800 plants and animals under the Act’s protection," the letter states, "only nine have been declared extinct, and more than two-thirds of protected species
are moving toward recovery with stable and improving populations."

Congress first passed the ESA due to public outcry over species loss "as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation," in the words of the ESA itself. In signing the bill, then-president Richard Nixon said that the "legislation provides the federal government with the needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage—threatened wildlife."

CONTACTS: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, www.fws.gov/endangered; Endangered Species Coalition, www.stopextinction.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I have a friend who works with polystyrene insulation materials on construction sites and I’m concerned for his health. Should I be?

—Taryn H. Eldredge, via e-mail

Occasional exposure to polystyrene, more commonly known by Dow Chemical’s trade name Styrofoam, is not likely to do any harm to one’s health. But workers exposed to the material for prolonged periods on a regular basis should take heed. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) warns that chronic exposure can irritate the skin, eyes, upper respiratory and gastro-intestinal tracts, and lead to central nervous system damage and compromised kidney function.

Polystyrene is a plastic manufactured by blowing air at high pressure into styrene, a naturally occurring petroleum by-product. Initially, environmental groups criticized the polystyrene production process for its use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which cause ozone depletion, as blowing agents. But an international agreement in 1987 banned CFCs, so polystyrene makers shifted to less harmful manufacturing methods.

However, concerns continue about the widespread distribution of polystyrene throughout our society. Toxicologists report that all Americans have at least trace amounts of styrene in their bloodstreams, no doubt leaked from Styrofoam food containers, packing materials and insulation, if not from mother’s milk directly (as studies have borne out). And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "several epidemiological studies suggest there may be an association between styrene exposure and an increased risk of leukemia and lymphoma." The EPA classifies styrene as a "possible human carcinogen."

In 1990 environmentalists convinced McDonald’s to abandon polystyrene "to go" boxes and cups—which could leak styrene into food and drinks—in favor of non-toxic recycled cardboard and paper containers. Prior to the decision, McDonald’s had been the largest consumer of polystyrene products in the world.

Today that dubious distinction goes to the construction industry, which uses polystyrene as lightweight, rot-free and highly efficient insulation, and for other purposes. Minimizing exposure, including wearing masks and gloves, is key to preventing health effects. And construction workers handling polystyrene should take the advice of Dow Chemical itself: "When large quantities of the boards are stored indoors, it is recommended that the building be ventilated to allow a minimum of two air changes per hour."

The increasing production of polystyrene is also a big waste issue. It is not biodegradable and is one of the most difficult plastics to recycle. Thus polystyrene is starting to clog landfills around the U.S. and beyond.

Some alternatives to polystyrene for insulation include recycled polystyrene, which addresses solid waste concerns but not health issues, and cellulose (made from newspaper and cardboard and available from Celbar, among others). Natural cotton fiber, such as that made by UltraTouch, is also a healthier alternative for construction workers and homeowners alike, and is available at Phoenix Organics, among other online retailers. Another good choice is straw insulation, which is enjoying renewed interest in the building trade. Straw is both widely available and renewable, and is about half the cost of polystyrene.

CONTACTS: OSHA, www.osha.gov/SLTC/styrene; Dow Chemical, www.dow.com/styrofoam; Celbar, www.celbar.com; Phoenix Organics, www.phoenixorganics.com.