Week of 12/25/2005

Dear EarthTalk: Since 2006 is almost upon us, what New Year’s resolutions might my family and I make to lessen our impact on the environment?

—David Schink, Chicago, IL

The dawn of a new year is always a good time to consider how our actions and activities affect the environment. Here are a few ways to be greener in 2006:

– Buy organic and fair trade. Organic crops grow without the chemicals that pollute our environment and cause health problems for sensitive consumers. Meanwhile, "fair trade" goods won’t exploit third world workers or their environment. Purchase organic and fair traded food and clothing and you"ll help make a difference while often enjoying higher quality goods. (www.purefood.org; www.fairtrade.net)

– Travel Lite. Driving gas-guzzling SUVs is a sure way to keep warming the globe and polluting the air. Even small steps—like driving a fuel-efficient hybrid or taking public transit—can have major impact. And don’t forget that walking and biking cause no pollution, use no oil, keep you fit and get you to appreciate the great outdoors more. Vacationing? Choose an "eco-tour" that minimizes impact and benefits the host community. (www.hybridcars.com; www.ecotourism.org)

– Batten Down the Hatches. Upgrade appliances to greener models, add insulation and replace leaky windows and you can make your home comfy and save lots of cash. A slew of new tax incentives make it more lucrative than ever to do the right thing. Jimmy Carter’s advice to lower the thermostat and don a sweater still holds. In summer, turn off air conditioners and open the windows. (www.ase.org)

– Dump the Chemicals. Green cleaning products, from a growing list of manufacturers, are safer than conventional cleansers, especially for children who spend a lot of time on the floor. And since dioxin traces have been found on everything from bleached paper towels and diapers to tampons, look for alternatives made with unbleached paper or organic cotton. (www.checnet.org)

– Eat Lower on the Food Chain. By eating less or no meat and more fruits and veggies, you"ll not only improve your health by reducing fat and cholesterol, you"ll also help the environment. Meatless diets mean far less land and water usage and reduced pollution from the animal waste that is now a major contributor to water and groundwater pollution. (www.goveg.com)

– Don’t buy fur. Give wildlife a break—they have enough trouble surviving as it is, with so much habitat threatened by booming human population and rampant development. And the ones raised on "ranches" aren’t having a picnic either. (www.hsus.org/wildlife/issues_facing_wildlife/fur_and_trapping)

– Invest in your principles. Mutual funds like Calvert, Domini and others will invest your money in good corporate environmental citizens. And a growing number of credit unions and banks will lend your deposits to green-friendly businesses. Buy stock in companies you don’t like, too—then effect change from within by speaking up at shareholder meetings for better practices. (www.sriworld.com)

– Teach Your Children Well. A good place to start is with curbing consumption. How many Beanie Babies, Barbies and iPods will be in landfills 10 years from now? You decide. (www.newdream.org)

Dear EarthTalk: How many Americans are adversely affected by air pollution and what can we do to improve air quality?

—Tom Weaver, Sioux City, IA

According to the State of the Air 2005 report, published by the American Lung Association (ALA), air pollution levels improved in many parts of the nation during the first few years of the new millennium, but millions of Americans still face dangerous levels of air pollution.

The ALA report highlights the sad fact that, despite pro-environmental sentiment and strong regulations, more than half of the U.S. population lives in counties with unsafe levels of either smog or particle pollution. Smog is the worst offender and is often directly responsible for cases of decreased lung function, respiratory infection, lung inflammation and aggravation of respiratory illness. Some 142.7 million Americans live in counties rated with failing grades by the ALA for this airborne pollutant.

Meanwhile, another 76.5 million Americans live in areas where they are exposed to unhealthy short-term levels of particle pollution. Children and the elderly are especially at risk. Short-term, or acute, exposure to particle pollution has been linked to increases in heart attacks, strokes, and emergency-room visits for asthma and cardiovascular disease. Particle pollution is most dangerous to those already suffering from asthma, heart disease, bronchitis and emphysema.

The ALA’s annual tally of America’s air pollution is based on readings from air quality monitors in every county in the nation. The organization is presently working hard to protect the Clean Air Act from the budget-cutting efforts of several key lawmakers. It is also currently engaged in a vigorous campaign to force the cleanup of the country’s dirtiest power plants. Old, coal-fired power plants are among the biggest industrial contributors to unhealthy air, especially particle pollution in the eastern United States.

Individuals can help improve air quality by cutting down on driving so as to reduce vehicle exhaust, and by refraining from burning wood or trash that sends particle pollution into the air. The ALA also suggests getting involved in community reviews of air pollution plans and supporting state and local efforts to clean up air pollution. Urging members of Congress to protect the Clean Air Act is another way for individuals to get involved.

CONTACT: American Lung Association, www.lungaction.org.