Week of 12/16/07

Dear EarthTalk: We just started an environmental club at our high school. What issues and activities do you recommend we get involved with to make the most difference?

—Kurt Perry, Cedar Park, TX

High school students in EarthTeam's Restoration Program plant native plants at the Strentzel Meadow site in Martinez, California.© EarthTeam

Participating in an environmental club is an excellent way for high school students to learn about environmental issues while providing measurable benefit to their community.

Given their local focus, most clubs focus on issues close to home. Many undertake hands-on activities like cleaning up local riverbanks and beaches strewn with litter, restoring degraded wildlife habitat and planting and managing a community organic garden. Other worthy ideas include starting a recycling program (or setting up a compost bin) on school grounds, involving the school or community in measuring and lowering their "carbon footprint," organizing energy- and emissions-saving carpools for students who drive, and asking school officials to print all documents double-sided (to save paper).

Another way for an environmental club to get involved is to offer assistance to a local green group already working on a project, be it an effort to preserve a threatened parcel of open space, promote bus ridership, get a wind turbine installed in town or pressure a local polluter to clean up its act. Polling club members on what issues matter most to them is a good way to get started on picking projects and activities.

Several national nonprofits also help environmental clubs find focus areas and accomplish their goals. One of the leaders is EarthTeam, formed in 2000 with the mission of "creating a new generation of environmental leaders" by introducing teens to inspiring environmental experiences. The group’s website offers up extensive resources for starting an environmental club, finding resources and getting going on various environmental projects. The group also helps facilitate collaboration among clubs.

Some popular events among EarthTeam clubs include tree plantings, river and beach clean-ups, visits to local wetlands and nature preserves, and holding environmental awareness days at schools. Movie nights are also popular. Showing a relevant environmental documentary on the big screen in a school auditorium or some other venue is a sure way to get a larger membership base and stir up student interest. Some recent releases that might stimulate discussion and ideas include: The Cost of Cool, an in-depth look at the environmental consequences of excessive consumerism, hosted by former Baywatch star Alexandra Paul; A Crude Awakening, about the impact of global oil dependency; and Al Gore"s An Inconvenient Truth.

Another great resource is Earth Tomorrow, a national network of high school environmental clubs administered by the National Wildlife Federation. Through the network, clubs gain access to a wide range of resources on which they can base projects. Examples include the Schoolyard Habitats How-to Guide, which walks high schoolers through the steps involved in enhancing wildlife habitat and ecological health on school grounds, and the Science and Civics program, which shows students how to use science, economics, the law and politics to address a local conservation issue and implement an action plan. Beyond these pre-packaged resources, Earth Tomorrow members can tap each other for project ideas, help and general guidance to help make their club experience as productive and rewarding as possible.

CONTACTS: Earth Team; EarthTomorrow

Dear EarthTalk: My condo kitchen floor is vinyl, installed back in 1979. I am told the vinyl contains asbestos. Now it needs replacing. How do I safely remove the vinyl and what are some green choices for a new floor?

—Green Dreamer, via e-mail

Today, the only money to be made from asbestos is by those in the business of getting rid of it, and an entire industry has sprung up specializing in safely removing asbestos from both commercial and residential buildings.© Getty Images

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that can be used in a variety of industrial applications due to its strong flexible fibers, its resilience to heat and chemicals, and the fact that it does not conduct electricity. From the late 1800s through the 1970s, asbestos was used extensively in the U.S. and elsewhere in everything from pipes and insulation to siding and flooring, including vinyl tiles.

The problem with asbestos is that its microscopic fibers can become airborne when materials containing it get worn out, damaged or disturbed. Inhaling these airborne fibers can lead to a variety of health problems such as asbestosis (a chronic lung ailment that can produce shortness of breath and permanent lung damage) and a variety of cancers, including those of the lung, larynx and gastrointestinal tract.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) effectively banned asbestos in 1989. (The ban was later overturned in federal court as a result of pressure from mining and construction interests, but the damage to the substance’s reputation was too formidable for industry to start using it widely again.) Today, the only money to be made from asbestos is by those in the business of getting rid of it, and an entire industry has sprung up specializing in safely removing asbestos from both commercial and residential buildings.

The EPA recommends that homeowners who want to remove asbestos-containing materials from their residences hire a licensed contractor to do the dirty work, so as not to compromise family or personal health. The EPA maintains an online listing of asbestos removal specialists across the country, and homeowners can also look in their local Yellow Pages under "asbestos abatement" or "asbestos removal" to find local contractors qualified to remove and dispose of the stuff safely and completely.

Hiring such a firm can cost thousands of dollars; so many do-it-yourselfers still take it upon themselves to remove worn asbestos-containing materials (tiles, siding, etc.) from their own homes. Anyone willing to undertake such risks should make sure to get a respirator and other safety equipment to protect against inhaling airborne asbestos particles, and should seal off work areas so the carcinogenic dust does not spread into other areas of the building. The Flooring Lady website is chock full of details on how to minimize risks and includes strong reminders that such a task is not for the risk-averse.

As for what to replace those worn vinyl tiles with, many greener choices abound. Bamboo, cork, linoleum, and sustainably harvested or reclaimed wood are all environmentally sound and widely available flooring options. Some of these products are available at the big box home improvement stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot, but better selections can be found at online green building supply stores like Ecohaus, Green Building Supply and GreenFloors, among others.

CONTACTS: U.S. EPA Asbestos Information; The Flooring Lady; Ecohaus; Green Building Supply; GreenFloors