Week of 2/15/2004

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard I should avoid buying wood products made from "old-growth timber." What does that refer to, and how can I tell if something is made from old-growth wood?
Anna Hunt, Sierra Madre, CA

"Old growth" is often defined as trees that have been growing for approximately 200 years or longer. The problem, according to the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), is that the lumber industry classifies trees by lumber grades, not age, and because old-growth wood provides the highest quality lumber, it is highly prized. Most old growth in this country is found in the Pacific Northwest and California.

*?D+?Tere hasn’t been much successful legislation to protect old growth in this country, it is possible to trace where your wood comes from and protect old-growth forests by boycotting products made from this irreplaceable resource, says Richard Donovan, chief of forestry at the Rainforest Alliance, which created the SmartWood forest certification program. "One can identify suppliers and then look at their forest management." Donovan recommends buying forest products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) as sustainably harvested from a well-managed forest, and warns that the new certification label from the American Forest and Paper Association, created in 2002 and called the Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) label, is not sufficient.

According to the Rainforest Alliance, few groups outside of the timber industry recognize the legitimacy of the SFI label. Organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, and corporate leaders in sustainable wood, including IKEA, Home Depot and Kinko’s, use FSC-certified products in some cases because of pressure from rainforest activists. The Rainforest Action Network says the SFI label fails to protect old-growth forests, roadless areas and federal lands, endangered species and indigenous rights. RAN also recommends using timber alternatives when possible, such as recycled wood, composite wood made from plastic, and kenaf paper.

CONTACT: Forest Stewardship Council, (877) 372-5646, www.fscus.org; Rainforest Action Network, (415)398-4404, www.ran.org; SmartWood, (802) 434-5491, www.smartwood.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Does drinking hard water result in an unhealthy buildup of minerals in the body over time? Should I use a water softener?
Sunny Mullis, Sturgis, SD

The presence of calcium and magnesium in your water will make it "hard." These minerals are dissolved in rainwater as it moves through soil and rock. According to a 1980 study done by the National Academy of Sciences on the mineral nutrition of drinking water, a high-calcium diet can help prevent osteoporosis, or bone degeneration, and magnesium can help prevent depression, vertigo and muscle weakness. The study shows that magnesium deficiencies can slow growth, affect the kidneys, and result in hair loss. There were no negative side effects reported from ingesting large quantities of calcium or magnesium.

Hard water can, however, damage hot water heater efficiency and block plumbing by forming calcium deposits in pipes. It can also reduce water pressure, leave soap film and scum lines on tile, and cause poor sudsing of soap and shampoo, dry, itchy skin and brittle hair.

Hard water can be an inconvenience, but traditional treatment for softening your water may be bad for your health. To remove the minerals, many companies use an ion exchange process, replacing the calcium and magnesium with sodium (salt). The problem is that twice the amount of sodium is needed to replace the other ions, and treated water offers a heavy dose of this health buster. You may want to try an alternative softener, such as the Scaleban, an electronic limestone (the source of calcium deposits) neutralizer made by EcoSoft Systems. It softens water electronically without using salt. Water softeners made by War-A-Lon use a no-salt catalytic/magnetic process.

CONTACT: The National Academy of Sciences, www.nationalacademies.org; EcoSoft Systems, (610)495-9930, www.scaleban.com; War-A-Lon, (406)889-3915, www.waralon.com.