Week of 11/19/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What can I do, as just one individual, to help curb global warming?

—Karen Cross, via e-mail

Most of our own direct contributions to global warming pertain to the modes of travel we choose. For starters, air travel burns more fossil fuels per person than any other form of transport. So if you can opt for other forms of long-distance travel, you can reduce your contribution of greenhouse gases significantly—provided, of course, that at least a planeload of others are doing the same.

The other main offender in the transportation arena is the private automobile. Driving less frequently, carpooling, and using public transport such as buses and rail can take a big bite out of the greenhouse gases and pollution you are personally responsible for. Also, think about all those short car trips you take where a brisk walk or bicycle ride might do the trick and provide some needed exercise in the process.

When driving is a necessity, though, always make sure your vehicle is properly tuned and that the tires are properly inflated, so as to conserve fuel. If you are contemplating the purchase of a new car, consider one of the many offerings of gas-sipping hybrids, which often come with tax incentives, now on the market.

At home, you can fight global warming by buying energy-efficient appliances and keeping older ones serviced, as inefficiencies translate into energy waste. And simply minimizing heating and cooling in the home can reduce your individual contribution to climate change while also lowering monthly bills. In cold weather, dress warmly and sleep with warm blankets; in warm weather, dress lightly and open the windows to create drafts; when you go out, turn heat and air conditioning down or off.

Insulating and weather-stripping your house is another great way to reduce energy use. And if your utility offers check-off options for renewable power sources like wind or solar, opt for them, even if it costs a buck or two—a small price to pay for a healthy planet. And plant a few trees in the backyard. Over their lifetimes they"ll remove tons of carbon dioxide that would otherwise contribute to global warming.

Cutting back or eliminating meat and dairy from one’s diet is another great way to fight climate change, while also keeping healthy. Cows used for meat and milk are continuously fed in order to maximize their productivity, and as a result they continually emit methane as they digest. According to Noam Mohr of the non-profit EarthSave, methane gas is 21 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide coming out of our tailpipes. Given the massive proliferation of livestock around the globe, these industries are major contributors to global warming. Also, switching from supermarket-based, energy-intensive processed foods that must be shipped long distances to food grown locally can reduce one’s greenhouse gas contribution even more than by switching from a gas-powered mid-size car to a hybrid.

Various climate-related websites, including CarbonFootprint.com and TerraPass.com, offer free online "carbon footprint calculators" so individuals can see and even calculate how their actions contribute to global warming. SafeClimate.net helps businesses of all sizes take action on climate change.

CONTACTS: EarthSave, www.earthsave.org/globalwarming.htm; Carbon Footprint, www.carbonfootprint.com; TerraPass, TerraPass, www.terrapass.com; SafeClimate.net, www.safeclimate.net.

Dear EarthTalk: Are the flame-retardants used in many products as a fire safety precaution dangerous to our health? If so, what can I do to avoid contact with them?

—Katya, via e-mail

Flame-retardants are in widespread use in both the U.S. and Canada, primarily in carpet padding, foam cushions, polyester bedding and clothing, wallpaper, and the plastic housings for computers, faxes and other electronics. Most are made from variations of a chemical known as PBDE, which stands for polybrominated diphenyl ether.

According to the Washington State Department of Ecology (WSDE), in laboratory studies some PBDEs have been shown to cause problems in rodent brain development. "Most of these problems stem from pre-natal exposure and exposure soon after birth. The health effects appear to be permanent," says WSDE. They are quick to point out, though, that levels in humans have not (yet) reached the levels that cause problems in lab animals, but that scientists are concerned because the levels in humans keep rising.

PBDEs are "persistent" in that they don’t break down but remain active in our air, water, soil and food. WSDE says that PDBEs are building up in animals throughout the food chain, even turning up in orca whales in Puget Sound in Washington and in the bodies of polar bears in the Arctic.

PBDEs also stay in our bodies, accumulating in our fatty tissue. The U.S. is the world’s largest maker and user of PBDEs, and levels found in Americans are as much as 100 times higher than in Europe, where most PDBEs were banned in 2001. North American levels, say scientists, are doubling every two to five years. Primarily, human exposure has been through eating fish, though babies can be exposed by drinking mother’s milk. Children are also exposed when they wear polyester pajamas treated with flame retardant. Indeed, PDBE chemicals easily "off-gas" from the very products they are designed to make safe.

Consumers can take precautions and avoid products that contain PBDE. Among other cautions, the Healthy Children Project recommends buying clothing, bedding and furniture made from natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, which do not melt near heat and as such do not need to contain flame-retardants.

Another way to minimize exposure is to stick to a diet low in animal fat, since the chemicals accumulate in larger amounts in animals higher up the food chain. Joyce Newman of the Green Guide recommends vegetables, fruits and whole grains over meat and fish. When choosing meat and fish, she suggests cutting away as much of the fat as possible, and choosing leaner cuts overall.

As for consumer goods, WSDE says that industries need to re-think their product designs whereby highly flammable materials are avoided and ignitable materials are separated or shielded from heat sources. Some mattresses in use now in nursing homes and hospitals, for example, employ a "barrier layer" of durable material between surface fabric and interior foam and meet stringent fire safety standards without the use of chemicals. But until the Canadian and U.S. governments begin to take PBDE dangers more seriously, it will be up to individual consumers to look out for the health of their children and families.

CONTACTS: Washington State Department of Ecology’s "Toxic Flame Retardants: The Buzz on PBDEs," www.ecy.wa.gov/pubs/0604026.pdf; Healthy Children Project, www.healthychildrenproject.org; The Green Guide, www.thegreenguide.com.