Week of 8/26/07

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the land mines issue popularized by Princess Diana and Paul McCartney"s ex-wife, Heather Mills? How many mines have been removed? How many are left? What is being done?

—Jonas Schultz, via e-mail

Land mines were first widely used in World War II and have since been used in Vietnam, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and in about a half dozen conflicts around the world today. Initially, mines were used for defensive purposes, to guard certain areas and keep the enemy out. Today they are used for more insidious reasons such as to terrorize civilians and limit their movement. And, of course, many remain behind from past wars and continue to unintentionally kill or maim civilians, including many children.

Today, an estimated 110 million mines are still scattered around the world in 78 countries, injuring or killing upwards of 26,000 people each year. According to a recent United Nations (UN) study, the countries most affected by mines are Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia, Croatia, Eritrea, Iraq, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Nicaragua and Sudan. The landmines in these countries make up almost 50 percent of all mines deployed in the world today.

Stats like these have prompted outcries from concerned people all over the world. Organizations such as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and Adopt a Minefield work to both rid the world of these weapons and to aid those injured by them. In the last decade, such organizations have spearheaded the destruction of as many as 30.5 million mines. Their work has also led to such a dramatic decrease in the mine trade worldwide that, since 2003, the manufacture and sale of mines has essentially ended (or at least no evidence exists that any trade in mines is still going on). In addition, Costa Rica, Djibouti, El Salvador, Kosovo and Moldova have all been declared "mine safe" as of 2004.

The UN itself does more than conduct studies and issue reports. Some14 different UN departments, agencies and programs work on de-mining efforts in some 30 countries. The actual work is done by non-governmental organizations and various military entities employing commercial contractors. Many intergovernmental and charitable organizations also support the UN"s efforts with financial assistance.

Many rather low-tech methods are used to detect and destroy mines. In Denmark, for instance, scientists have genetically modified Thale cress, a fast-growing green plant from the mustard family, to turn red whenever its roots are exposed to nitrogen dioxide, a gas released into soil by degrading mines. The Danish company Aresa Biodetection works with governments around the world to sow fields with the plant in areas plagued by mine problems. In another example, Colombian researchers have trained rats to freeze when they encounter mines in the ground. Since rats weigh so little, they don"t trigger explosions.

In December 1997 an international conference held in Ottawa, Ontario yielded the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines and on Their Destruction, otherwise known as the Mine Ban Treaty. The treaty was formalized in March 1999 when 122 countries became signatories. The international treaty works to prevent mine use, production and trade, assist victims and to destroy existing mines.

CONTACTS: Adopt a Minefield; International Campaign to Ban Landmines; Mine Ban Treaty

Dear EarthTalk: What are the best kinds of dishwasher and laundry soaps to use in consideration of where all the wastewater goes after use?

—Jessica Weichert, Waterford, CA

The average North American produces between 60 and 150 gallons of wastewater every day, much of it a result of washing dishes and clothes. Municipal water treatment facilities do their best to filter out the synthetic chemicals common in most mainstream dishwasher and laundry soaps, but some of these pollutants inevitably get into rivers, lakes and coastal areas, where they can cause a wide range of problems.

Perhaps the most worrisome of these pollutants, phosphates, can cause large build-ups of algae and bacteria that rob water bodies of oxygen and thus choke out other life forms. In response to just such a problem occurring in Lakes Ontario and Erie in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the U.S. and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1972. The agreement banned the use of phosphates in laundry detergents and dish soaps used in the region, and resulted in a significant decrease in algae blooms throughout the Great Lakes.

Despite the success of the agreement, phosphates and other synthetic chemicals continue to be widely used in laundry and dish soaps throughout the world. Aside from their effect on water bodies, these ingredients also trigger allergies, irritate the skin and eyes and carry other health risks.

Fortunately, consumers now have more environmentally friendly choices than ever. Companies such as Seventh Generation, Ecover, Bioshield and Naturally Yours make safer dishwasher and laundry soaps that do not contain phosphates or other harmful synthetic chemicals. Many of these greener options are available at retail stores like Whole Foods and Wild Oats as well as online from websites like Kokopelli"s Green Market and a host of others.

According to Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender, consumers interested in doing the right thing for the environment should look at ingredients, not slogans. "Just because a product says it is natural doesn"t mean it is nontoxic," he says. Environmentally friendly ingredients to look for include grain alcohol, coconut or other plant oils, rosemary and sage. Synthetic ingredients to avoid include butyl cellosolve, petroleum, triclosan and phosphates. It is also best to avoid detergents that employ fragrances, as they can contain chemicals known as phthalates that have been linked to cancer.

Although household-cleaning chores can often be accomplished with non-toxic, homemade alternatives—such as water mixed with borax, lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar or washing soda—laundry and automatic dishwashing soaps are not so easily replaced with home concoctions. However, Emily Main, senior editor at The Green Guide, recommends adding one-quarter cup of baking soda or white vinegar to clothes washes to act as a fabric softener, and for stain removal suggests soaking fabrics in water mixed with either borax, lemon juice, hydrogen peroxide or white vinegar. As to home recipes for dishwashing, some hardcore homesteaders recommend trying an equal mix of borax and baking soda, but this is probably best used only in a pinch as the abrasiveness of such a mixture can scratch glassware over time.

CONTACTS: Ecover; Seventh Generation; Kokopelli’s Green Market; The Green Guide