Week of 4/12/2009

Dear EarthTalk: Is there really such a thing as "sun-protective clothing?" If so, does it mean I can dispense with oily sunscreens once and for all?

—John Sugarman, San Diego, CA

While there will always be a place for high-quality sunscreen on body parts exposed to the sun, covering up elsewhere—ideally with clothing designed to absorb or shield the sun"s damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation—can minimize a person"s skin cancer risk significantly.

With recent news about the inadequacy of many sunscreens—the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that four out of five name brand sunscreens offer inadequate protection from the sun or contain potentially carcinogenic ingredients—covering up instead of smearing is looking better and better to many people. A handful of clothing manufacturers are responding to the increased demand for shirts, pants, dresses and hats bearing "SPF" (sun protection factor) ratings with stylish sun-protective duds.

The granddaddy of them all just might be Sun Precautions Inc., which was started 15 years ago by avid downhill ski racer and outdoors enthusiast Shaun Hughes after he was diagnosed with skin cancer at age 26. The company"s Solumbra line of sun-protective casual and outdoors clothing blocks upwards of 97 percent of all UVA and UVB radiation it encounters, and is recommended by thousands of dermatologists.

With recent news about the inadequacy of many sunscreens, a handful of clothing manufacturers now sell shirts, pants, dresses and hats bearing "SPF" (sun protection factor) ratings. Pictured here: a Sungrubbies Adventure Hat for kids.© Sungrubbies

To test that its product line offers the kind of protection the company advertises, Sun Precautions subjects all of its Solumbra clothing to 500 laundry cycles, then snips out fabric samples which are exposed to the equivalent of 500 days of UV rays. If the samples pass muster, the line can be shipped.

Another leader in the fast growing field is Coolibar, which boasts a 50+ SPF rating for all of its garments. Its clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved bathing suits among many other items, is crafted from a proprietary tight-weave yet breezy fabric it calls Suntect. Another top purveyor is Sun Protective Clothing, which makes its casual and sporting clothes from a proprietary fabric blend called Solarweave, which fends off UVA and UVB rays yet maintains a light cottony "summerweight" feel.

Some hardcore environmentalists shun sun-protective clothing because it is usually made from polyester, Lycra or nylon—all which are petroleum-derived and are can contain some nasty chemicals. But Marta Phillips of SunGrubbies.com feels that it is better to wear the clothes than to smear chemicals directly onto your skin via sunscreen. That"s why her company sells a wide variety of sun-protective pants, jackets and hats, as well as specialty items such as cover-ups, sun gloves, sun sleeves and nose scarves.

If getting a whole new wardrobe of sun-protective clothing is out of the question, washing your existing clothes with Rit"s SunGuard, a product that treats fabric with a compound that imparts 96 percent UV protection through about 20 washings, might be the way to go. Also, sun lovers shouldn"t forget about protecting their eyes. A good pair of 100 percent UV protection sunglasses doesn"t cost an arm and a leg anymore; everyone in your family needs a pair.

CONTACTS: Environmental Working Group; Coolibar; Sun Precautions; Sun Protective Clothing; SunGrubbies.com; SunGuard

Dear EarthTalk: Aren’t orangutans seriously threatened by the cutting down of forests?

—Nick Chermayeff, Greenwich, CT

A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program predicts that orangutans will be virtually eliminated from the wild within two decades if current trends continue. The animals, which live almost entirely in trees, are threatened by deforestation (for agriculture and development), the bush meat trade, and by poachers who kill the mothers and sell the babies as pets.© Getty Images

Deforestation is indeed the primary threat to the orangutan, a species of great ape known for its keen intelligence and the fact that it"s the largest animal to live primarily in trees. A 2007 assessment by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) predicts that orangutans will be virtually eliminated in the wild within two decades if current deforestation trends continue. The great reddish-brown apes are native to the tropical rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia, which are being cut down rapidly (and in many cases, illegally) to make way for agriculture and other development.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies the Bornean sub-species of orangutan as Endangered and the Sumatran sub-species as Critically Endangered. The non-profit Orangutan Conservancy estimates that 54,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans remain in the wild. Given that it"s rare for adult orangutans, supremely adapted to life in trees, to ever touch the ground; it"s no wonder that forest degradation, fragmentation and outright clearing—sometimes by intentionally set fires—are the main drivers of the species" population decline. The result has been the loss of some 80 percent of the orangutans" habitat in just the last two decades.

While small independent farmers are cutting down rainforest swaths to plant their crops, an even larger problem is the spread of large oil palm plantations—in some cases funded by supposedly forward-thinking international development banks—that stretch for hundreds of thousands of acres across formerly diverse rainforest. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that over the last four decades, the total land area planted with oil palm in Indonesia has grown some 30-fold to over three million hectares, while in Malaysia, oil palm agriculture has increased 12-fold to 3.5 million hectares.

Orangutans are also killed for the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers kill the mothers and then sell their babies as pets. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there may be more (pet) orangutans per square-mile in Taipei, Taiwan than in the wild. Unfortunately for the often unwitting owners, orangutans quickly grow out of being cuddly and can, like any wild animal, become unmanageable and unruly when confined.

Poachers are also killing orangutans for food for the so-called bush meat trade. According to the Orangutan Conservancy, the fact that many Indonesian logging companies do not provide food for their workers exacerbates this problem. "Hundreds of loggers are employed to cut down a particular area of forest, and they have to find food for themselves," says the Conservancy. "The loggers, along with settlers who establish communities in the forest, hunt orangs, birds, and small mammals the orangs eat."

The group pins the blame on economic pressures along with human greed and ignorance. "The needs of so many people with little landmass are pressingly urgent, allowing little time for planning or care about the environment." Readers can help by donating time or money to the group, or by contributing to its adopt-an-orangutan program whereby donated funds go toward caring for specific orphaned orangutans.

CONTACTS: UNEP; IUCN; CSPI; WWF; Orangutan Conservancy

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