Week of 12/26/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Are contact lens fluids safe for the environment and personal health?

—M. Luh, Storrs, CT

According to the Contact Lens Council, approximately 34 million Americans now wear contact lenses. Most people use various saline and disinfectant solutions for their lenses from big-name companies like Bausch & Lomb and Johnson & Johnson. These products are usually packaged in squeeze bottles that, according to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, are required to have preservatives.

But many preservatives can cause irritation and discomfort to the user. For example, thimerasol, a preservative commonly used in contact lens disinfectant solutions in the past, was found to be the culprit in severe allergies. One particularly harmful by-product of thimerasol, once it degrades or metabolizes, is ethyl mercury, which researchers now believe plays a role in the development of autism and a number of health problems.

Other preservatives like benzalkonium chloride have now replaced thimerasol in contact lens solutions. However, according to the Switzerland-based Perret Opticiens, there is still the possibility of such allergic reactions as redness, itching and discharge with the new generation of preservatives being used in conventional solutions.

There are other options. Clear Conscience now makes a line of contact lens solutions that are reportedly gentler for the environment and the wearer. Unlike conventional products, the company’s saline solution is dispensed by a safe nitrogen propellant, which means it contains no preservatives. Clear Conscience also offers an FDA-approved Multi-Purpose Solution that is benzalkonium chloride- and thimerasol-free. It can be used to disinfect, clean and store hard or soft contacts. WholeFoods Markets and other large natural goods stores stock Clear Conscience products, or they can be ordered online at the company’s website.

Meanwhile, Alcon, one of the largest providers of traditional lens solutions, has diversified its product line to include two preservative-free products, Unisol 4 and Pliagel, both which are available online at drugstore.com as well as at other large health products retailers.

CONTACTS: Contact Lens Council, (800) 884-4CLC, http://www.contactlenscouncil.org; Clear Conscience, (800) 595-9592, http://www.clearconscience.com ; Perret Opticiens, http://www.perret-optic.ch/index_gb.htm ; Alcon Labs, (800) 757-9195, http://www.alconlabs.com; http://drugstore.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Would removing the bald eagle from endangered species protection, as proposed by some environmental groups and the Bush administration, be considered an environmental victory?

—William Young, Chappaqua, NY

Just 30 years ago, the once-abundant bald eagle—America’s national symbol—was in danger of extinction in its primary habitat across the lower 48 states. Hunting, sprawl and poisoning from the agricultural pesticide DDT had conspired against this majestic raptor, despite safeguards in place under the Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940. Fewer than 500 breeding pairs remained and the outlook was grim.

But with the banning of DDT in 1972 and the passage of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1973, eagle populations began to rebound. By July 1995, the species had recovered to 5,700 pairs, and was upgraded from "endangered" to "threatened" status under the ESA. Today, biologists estimate that more than 7,600 breeding pairs inhabit the lower 48 states, and the Bush administration has proposed de-listing the species once and for all in 2005.

Conservation efforts have indeed made the eagle’s recovery possible, but nonetheless even the environmental community is split on whether or not de-listing the bird is a good idea. Some say that the eagle’s recovery has exceeded expectations and that de-listing would be the culmination and celebration of a great American conservation success story—proof that the ESA works."The species" numbers have steadily increased over the past three decades, so much so that in some areas, such as the Chesapeake Bay region, there are hundreds more eagles today than there were prior to the DDT era," says endangered species law expert Michael Bean of Environmental Defense, a non-profit group that was originally instrumental in the banning of DDT. Last spring, Environmental Defense lobbied the White House to put forth the most recent eagle de-listing proposal.

But other eagle advocates worry that key protections would no longer be in effect if de-listing were to take place. Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, says that earlier efforts by the Clinton White House to de-list the eagle stalled after federal biologists warned that contaminants in the environment and habitat loss were still preventing some eagle populations from achieving optimum reproduction rates. And budget cuts in the interim have meant that no additional eagle population monitoring has taken place. Without any new data to justify de-listing, Suckling and others consider taking endangered species protection away from the eagle at this point to be not only premature but also illegal.

Federal officials have put forth similar proposals to take the gray wolf and the grizzly bear off the threatened list as well. These great conservation success stories underscore how important the ESA has been. But as new, larger threats to wildlife—including habitat loss and global warming—loom, many are left wondering if we’re celebrating victory in the war against species loss a little too soon.

CONTACTS: Environmental Defense, (212) 505-2100, http://www.environmentaldefense.org ; Center for Biological Diversity, (520) 623-5252, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/swcbd/ ; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program, http://endangered.fws.gov/.