Thursday, July 31, 2008

EcoWaste Coalition: Surviving the Crisis with Cost-Cutting Tips for the Pocket and the Planet

I came along this blog posting by the EcoWaste Coalition in my work. The posting talks about what you can do to save money. Suggestions include turning off lights when you're not using them, walk instead of drive, and buy less stuff.

Thing is, these suggestions are for people who live in the Philippines, and are arguably less wealthy than we are. Yet, they are finding the same ways to cut back as we are. Shouldn't that mean we should be cutting back more, since arguably we could afford to do so?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How do you measure up?

How happy are you? This eternal question has been tried and tested repeatedly, in many forms, using scientific and not-so-scientific methods.

This time, the American Human Development Project has put together their own measurement system for Americans, so we can see how we compare to each other. You can even calculate your own "development" based on some specifics about yourself on their calculator. Apparently I'm pretty happy, but not as happy as if I lived in New York City (which I disagree with), but happier than most other races in America.

Well, I won't take these results to the bank, but it was pretty fun to take the test.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Digital Fidgeting

The July 21, 2008 issue of Newsweek had an article by a guy named N'Gai Croal (why he agreed to have a byline reading American Geek is beyond me) callled "The Peril of Digital Fidgeting." He describes it thus:

What I'm describing is not multi-tasking--the kind you do at your desk as you toggle between email, IM, and Web pages, driving down productivity--but rather a new form of mobile perpetual-tasking, where moments of spare time are steadily filled in by constant communication...even the work I did on my PDA was a way of filling the void with some form of electronic activity.

He noticed how bad his digital fidgeting had become when his PDA died. Thank goodness he took a moment to take stock between Twitter feeds before the launch of his new life as an iPhone owner.

I am not trying to sound holier than thou (though I'm fairly certain that's the tone of this piece), but PUUHHLEEEZZE...How about "filling the void" by talking with your co-workers, your neighbors, and friendly faces sitting nearby? I fear that the allure of our virtual communities is partly so we don't have to participate in the actual community. Part of consciously consuming is examining whether the time we spend (to consume means to use up, afterall) is in support of our values. I hope our society does not devolve from coming together for our common good to a roomful of people shoring up their on-line personalities at the cost of their real ones.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Comeback for the Electric Car!

If you haven't yet seen "Who Killed the Electric Car?", I highly recommend viewing it from your local library, Netflix, etc. It will get you all fired up about how the auto industry dragged its feet on electric cars in favor of continuing our oil dependence. Then you can begin to dream of an electric car of your own, just in time for the debut of the Tesla (projected to be in production of 20,000 units by 2010) and the Chevy Volt (10,000 units in 2010). The Atlantic Monthly had a write up on the coming of the Volt to the masses, and Elon Musk, chairman of Tesla Motors, was recently interviewed by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. An excerpt from the Newsweek article made me want to buy this guy a drink (so obvious, and yet so seemingly far away):

If you had a magic wand, what change would you make in America's energy policy?

I would certainly shift any subsidies on hydrocarbons to renewable energy. It's ludicrous to be subsidizing oil and coal and other things that clearly don't have a long-term future and bring great damage to the environment.

YES!!! Are the politicians listening??? Are we asking loudly enough???

Friday, July 25, 2008

2,000-Watt Society...could we do it?

Hopefully you had a chance to read Elizabeth Kolbert's article The Island in the Wind from the last post, but if you didn't, another thing she talks about in the article, which I hadn't heard of, is the 2,000 Watt Society. The basic premise is that in a sustainable world, people would consume about 2,000 watts of electricity per year for all of their daily activities: growing food, transportation, electricity, heat, etc. She goes on to say:

Most of the people in the world today consume far less than this. The average Bangladeshi, for example, uses only about twenty-six hundred kilowatt-hours a year—this figure includes all forms of energy, from electricity to transportation fuel—which is the equivalent of using roughly three hundred watts continuously. The average Indian uses about eighty-seven hundred kilowatt-hours a year, making India a one-thousand-watt society, while the average Chinese uses about thirteen thousand kilowatt-hours a year, making China a fifteen-hundred-watt society.
Those of us who live in the industrialized world, by contrast, consume far more than two thousand watts. Switzerland, for instance, is a five-thousand-watt society. Most other Western European countries are six-thousand-watt societies; the United States and Canada run at twelve thousand watts. One of the founding principles of the 2,000-Watt Society is that this disparity is in itself unsustainable. “It’s a basic matter of fairness” is how Stulz put it to me. But increasing energy use in developing countries to match that of industrialized nations would be unacceptable on ecological grounds. Were per-capita demand in the developing world to reach current European levels, global energy consumption would more than double, and were it to rise to the American level, global energy consumption would more than triple. The 2,000-Watt Society gives industrialized countries a target for cutting energy use at the same time that it sets a limit for growth in developing nations.

I'm sure that you, like me, get tired of hearing how many more resources the average American uses up when compared with people in the rest of the world, as the problem seems so insurmountable. The question is, what can you do? What would a 2,000 Watt a year life look like? Well, it would look a lot like all of the things we talk about all the time: energy effienciency, public transportation and biking/walking, local foodsheds, renewable energy, and a reduction in the culture of consumption. The Swiss researchers who came up with this model expressed their doubts that the US would or could go to from a 12,000 to a 2,000 watt society, but concluded that if global climate change models pan out as expected, we will be dragged, kicking and screaming, to adopt it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Island in the Wind goes Climate Positive

Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a great (long) article in The New Yorker this month about the island of Samso in Denmark, called The Island in the Wind. Samso is Denmark's climate positive energy experiment; the island not only produces all of its own energy using renewable sources, but it produces enough excess energy to offset the entire population's use of hydrocarbons for driving cars and tractors, and then some. Samso generates about 10% more energy than it consumes, using mostly wind, but also biomass, biodeisel, and solar. I would highly recommend reading the whole article, but here are two excerpts if you don't have time:
This year, the world is expected to burn through some thirty-one billion barrels of oil, six billion tons of coal, and a hundred trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The combustion of these fossil fuels will produce, in aggregate, some four hundred quadrillion B.T.U.s of energy. It will also yield around thirty billion tons of carbon dioxide. Next year, global consumption of fossil fuels is expected to grow by about two per cent, meaning that emissions will rise by more than half a billion tons, and the following year consumption is expected to grow by yet another two per cent.

“When we started, in 1997, nobody expected this to happen,” Hermansen told the group. “When we talked to local people, they said, Yes, come on, maybe in your dreams.” Each land-based turbine cost the equivalent of eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Each offshore turbine cost around three million dollars. Some of Samsø’s turbines were erected by a single investor, like Tranberg; others were purchased collectively. At least four hundred and fifty island residents own shares in the onshore turbines, and a roughly equal number own shares in those offshore. Shareholders, who also include many non-residents, receive annual dividend checks based on the prevailing price of electricity and how much their turbine has generated.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Chicken Eaters Will Inherit the Earth...or will they?

Someone (OK, it was my dear hubby who would like have sound reasons to continue to eat meat) recently sent me the 2007 articleChicken Eaters Will Inherit the Earth.

The author writes:
raising livestock does create global warming emissions—cattle burp up a whole lot of methane, which is bad news for the environment. The good news is that, according to a study in the science journal Earth Interactions , chickens are a lot more energy efficient. They don’t emit staggering amounts of methane, and they only require “2 pounds of grain to produce a pound of meat, compared with about 6 pounds of grain for a feedlot cow and 3 pounds for a pig,” writes Salon.

And believe it or not, American vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs are emitting more greenhouse gases than nonvegetarians who consume poultry, dairy, and eggs but not red meat:

‘Astonishingly enough,’ says study coauthor Gidon Eshel, a Bard College geophysicist, ‘the poultry diet is actually better than lacto-ovo vegetarian.’ In other words, a roast chicken dinner is better for the planet than a cheese pizza. ‘If you need to eat dead animals, poultry is the way to go,’ says Eshel, a vegan.

Several people comment on the article with sound thoughts, including that a vegetarian does not necessarily increase cheese consumption when they stop eating meat, and most meat eaters DO eat cheese (the roast chicken dinner does not preclude a goat cheese salad on the side, etc.). Plus, unless the chicken is homegrown a la Barbara Kingsolver, you still have to account for the environmental costs of processing and transportation, not just the grain that the little feller eats. Environmentally it is best to eat a vegan diet, grown locally, as livestock is the 3rd largest cause of greenhouse gas emissions (behind electricity consumption and transportation). The rest of us will do our best to limit our intake of meat, dairy, AND processed foods, which also use up much more energy in processing than the nutritional energy they put into our bodies.

Personally, my bet is on the cockroaches for inheriting the earth, but who am I to say?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Slow Food Boston meets Aug 9th for a Farm Tour

Join Slow Food Boston for an up-close encounter with the Nubian goats at Valley View Farm. Join us at 10AM on Saturday, August 9, 2008, and see how delicious fresh and soft-ripened goat cheeses are made.

Elizabeth and Peter Mulholland's family farm overlooks the lovely Ipswich River in Topsfield, MA. We'll learn how the herd is hand-milked and the cheeses hand-crafted, and how a goat/cow cheese was developed using rich Jersey milk from a neighboring herd.

Next, we'll drive 10 minutes for a picnic at the beautiful Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton, MA. Diana Rodgers will introduce us to the farm, which is a certified organic farm growing fruits, vegetables and heritage breeds. Sandwiches for a picnic will be available for purchase at the farm stand for approximately $6.00, and you may want to bring a cooler to shop for the farm's products.

Price is $10, payable via Paypal or check, and attendance will be limited to the first 30 people. See Slow Food Boston website for more details and to reserve your spots today!

Check out the Slow Food Boston website to register and for information about other upcoming events!

Guide to Pesticides in Your Food

So, I'm not judging the city of Seattle's decisions to remove a pesticides-rating guide after industry pressure. Ok, maybe I am just a little bit. But in case you wanted to know the worst pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables, the Environmental Working Group has put together
a great list of their own.

To avoid pesticides in your food, buy organic and local when possible. Local farmers tend to use organic or Integrated Pest Management practices. With fewer miles to travel and more suitable environments in which to grow, local foods need less chemicals, and in my opinion, taste better, too!

Monday, July 21, 2008


The following article is courtesy of Katherine Rozycki of Essential Design:

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper products are the biggest single component of community waste, with 85 million tons generated in 2006. Though much of this is recycled, the sheer volume compelled the team at product development consultancy Essential to examine their own consumption habits. Frustrated by their findings, the team devised a solution—the Treepac. Industrial Design Society of America (IDSA) judges took notice and honored the concept with a Silver International Design Excellence Award (IDEA) in the Ecodesign category.

Treepac is a reusable shipping container intended to replace cardboard boxes. The structure is made entirely of sustainable wood-based polymer cellulose acetate, Treepac is used like cardboard packaging but is designed to enable and encourage people and companies to improve their environmental footprint. The more times each pack is used, the greater its positive effect on the environment.

“When we examined our everyday use of cardboard, we became aware of the quantity of packaging materials we should recycle, appalled at the amount of material we couldn’t, and frustrated by an inability to reuse most of it,” said Design Researcher Dave Siedzik. “We were disheartened that recycling cardboard is a completely inefficient process.”

The Treepac concept mirrors the good features of cardboard boxes while adding new attributes that lower the overall environmental impact of packaging. Essential researchers, designers and engineers estimate that a recycled cardboard box can have up to eight uses but must be reconstituted in an energy-draining production facility each time. The Treepac, on the other hand, can be reused again and again.

Developing the Treepac is one way the Essential team aspires to create a positive environmental and social impact through their work. “By thinking of new opportunities to reduce overall energy consumption while not fundamentally changing the current shipping and delivery infrastructure, the Treepac concept has the potential to both improve the industry and help the environment,” said Founding Partner Scott Stropkay.

Ten Most Polluting Vehicles

Forbes put together a list of the top 10 worst auto polluters, although the actual list is hard to find in the article (check out the slideshow). It's not a surprise that most of the top 10 are SUV's or diesel-powered vehicles. One good news is that new diesel vehicles starting with 2009 models will be more efficient, thanks to new auto technology. These cars also abide by new California emissions laws, which proves that car companies can respond to new emissions legislation if necessary.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Federation of Mass Farmer's Market Dinner

The Federation of Massachsett's Farmer's Markets is holding a special 30th anniversary edition of its annual summer benefit dinner. Chef Peter Davis of Henrietta's Table is planning an intimate multi-course meal featuring the best of the season's harvest.
Tickets are $150 each (whoa, that's steep..but remeber, it's a benefit dinner for a fantastic cause) and are available by calling the Mass Farmers Markets office at 781-893-8222 or by e-mailing staff at massfarmersmarkets dot org. For more information and event details, click here.

Greener Patios

Here is one of the Union of Concerned Scientists' July 2008 e-newletters, called Greentips. They mention a lot of stuff that we talk about all the time, but it's nice to hear it again and again, lest we forget:

Greener Patios

For many people, summer is the time to take the cooking and parties outdoors. If you want to create the perfect patio environment, keep the natural environment in mind as well; by choosing products that conserve resources and minimize pollution, you can enjoy your outdoor surroundings while also preserving them. Here are some ideas:

Building material
If you’re buying lumber for your deck, look for labels that indicate the wood comes from sustainably managed forests. (See the Related Links for a list of forest certification programs.) Or, consider composite lumber made from recycled plastic and wood wastes. Avoid pressure-treated wood if possible, as it is treated with chemicals that can leach into local water supplies. 
For ground-based patios, choose bricks or paving stones; compared with poured concrete they allow better water drainage, minimizing storm runoff, and are easier to replace if damaged.

Consider the lifespan of the furniture you purchase. Durable, well-made products will last longer, avoiding the need for frequent replacement. In addition, some materials (such as metal) will likely survive the elements far longer than wood. Buying used furniture, or furniture made from recycled materials, is another good option as it keeps materials out of the waste stream.
If you are considering new wood furniture, look for products made from reclaimed or FSC-certified wood.

If you are shopping for a new grill, consider a propane-fired model. According to the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, propane generates about half the carbon emissions of charcoal briquettes per hour of grilling, and one-third the emissions of electric grills (the emissions for which are generated at power plants). Charcoal also generates particulate matter (soot) that pollutes the air and can aggravate respiratory problems. 
Already own a charcoal grill or prefer the taste that charcoal imparts to your food?  Lower your impact by choosing lump charcoal harvested from sustainably managed forests. Avoid charcoal briquettes if possible, as they may contain coal dust or other additives as binders. (If you use briquettes, be sure to dispose of the ash in the garbage instead of scattering it outside, where trace elements in the ash can harm plants.) 

Whether you use lump charcoal or briquettes, light up your grill with a chimney starter instead of lighter fluid. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the 46,200 tons of lighter fluid used per year in the United States produces approximately 14,500 tons of smog-forming pollution.

When the sun goes down, turn to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) for floodlights and outdoor fixtures. CFLs use about 75 percent less energy than incandescents to provide the same amount of light, and last longer, too. 
If you use string lights around your patio, look for LED (light-emitting diode) versions, which use less energy than mini twinkle lights.

Insect Control
Eliminate areas of standing water around your home (such as birdbaths, puddles, or gutters), which are prime breeding locations for mosquitoes. If you maintain a birdbath or fish pond in your yard, be sure to change the water frequently or use a pump to keep the water circulating.

Avoid using electric or propane-fueled bug traps, which contribute to global warming. Instead, consider natural alternatives to repelling pests such as burning citronella candles or surrounding your patio with plants that repel insects (such as marigolds or geraniums)

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 4

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Read Section 1, Section 2, and Section 3.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

IV. What can we do at home?

First, it's important to think precaution and prevention. You may have someone in your household questioning whether you need to make this switch. Some of these products might cost more than the ones you're using now -- and some cost less.

I think the most compelling argument for taking action, right now, is something called cumulative impacts.

Cumulative impacts describes the situation that each one of us is in right now when it comes to toxic chemicals: sure, maybe one squirt of air freshener won't hurt you. Maybe breathing those scrubbing bubbles a few times won't hurt you. But what happens when you start to add these things up?

What happens when you're surrounded by dusting spray and scented laundry soap and squirt-on window cleaner and plug-in air fresheners and car exhaust and diesel emissions and mercury from power plants and chemicals in toys and makeup and pesticides in food?

Every single day of your life? We're all living in a grand experiment without our consent: we have no idea what all these chemicals do in combination with each other. And that's why it's so important to take precautionary action and remove any exposures that you can.

Five simple steps to a greener home

1.) Educate yourself. Learn enough to make good choices. A non-profit organization called Women's Voices for the Earth, at, has a lengthy report on cleaning products that is available for free downloading. The green cleaning company Seventh Generation has a comprehensive web site at that lists the ingredients in their products, has a "guide to a toxin-free home" and has coupons.

2.) Use fewer products, and less of them. I have a little secret for you that the cleaning product companies don't want you to know: you do not need a different product for every room in your house! Soap and water work for lots of things -- you can get a big bottle of castile soap that will last you for months. Baking soda and vinegar, which cost pennies per use, have many uses.

Question whether you need the products you're using -- maybe instead of spraying an air freshener, you could simmer a cinnamon stick on the stove (this is what realtors do when they want to sell a home, it makes the house smell so good!) Put half a lemon in your disposal. Open your windows when you clean to let the bad air out and the good
air in.

3.) Make your own cleaners. These are several great web resources with recipes for inexpensive, effective cleaners. Have a green cleaning party! Womens' Voices for the Earth has a fun "green cleaning party kit" that you can download form their website, They'll send you an educational DVD, fact sheets, and supplies you need to invite your friends over and have fun getting healthy.

4.) Buy good brands. These are several great companies out there right now who are making safe, healthy products for the home, and working hard to push this market. Only buy products that list their ingredients. Don't buy anything that says "caution" or "warning" or "use in a well-ventilated room." Support the companies who are doing the right thing and creating this market, such as Seventh Generation,
Method, and other brands you'll find at Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and natural food shops.

But there is a corollary to this: watch out for greenwashing, the practice whereby companies try to make themselves look good by claiming to be healthy, but actually are not. Words on the label like natural, green, eco, and even organic are not regulated in this market. Think about which companies you want to support.

5.) Perhaps most important, join together and speak up: join a non-profit organization such as Women's Voices for the Earth, the Science and Environmental Health Network (, or the Center for Environmental Health ( Continuing to use these same old dangerous chemicals are political and economic decisions, and both respond to consumers when we join our voices

Just as an example of recent results of consumer advocacy, Wal-Mart is pulling Bisphenol-A baby bottles form their shelves, and Target is phasing out PVC plastic. This is a direct result of great advocacy by non-profit organizations and the members who support them.

You can do some easy advocacy from home too: call the 800 number on the back of your cleaning products. Ask the manufacturers to list all of the ingredients on the product label, and to remove chemicals of concern from their products. Companies are thinking about doing this, but they need to hear from their customers to push them over the edge. You can also sign an online petition and leave comments at (click on "Take Action on Toxics").

This is a great time to get involved in issues of household environmental health. Consumers are learning more and demanding more from the marketplace, and manufacturers hear this and want a piece of that market. The market is shifting to healthier products, and it is because of each of us asking for products that don't harm our children or our planet. It's the perfect time to be gorgeously green.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, Part 3

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Read Section 1 and Section 2.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

III. What's the Dirt on Cleaners?

Let's look at household cleaning products. Now we understand how a chemical that may cause asthma, cancer or birth defects could be in this product, sitting on the shelf at the grocery store. But there's one more piece to the non-regulation of cleaning products in this country, and that is that they are not required to list their
ingredients on the label.

A leading laundry soap, for example, has more than 400 ingredients, but the manufacturer calls them a "trade secret" and doesn't list them on the box. So the first thing to look at, when you are buying cleaning products, is the ingredient list.

If the manufacturers won't tell you what's in their product, do you trust it enough to spray it in your tub and literally put your naked child in that tub? Choose only products that list all ingredients on the label, so you know what you're getting.

What are the chemicals of concern in cleaning products? This piece focuses on two categories of chemicals: those that cause asthma, and those that cause reproductive harm like birth defects. We focus on these because they affect women and children, who are most likely to be using the cleaning products, and home when they are being used.

Some of the known health effects of chemicals in common cleaning products are: -- several are known to cause occupational asthma in cleaning workers. -- animal studies have shown reproductive harm: testicular damage, reduced fertility, maternal toxicity, early embryonic death, and birth defects.

So where are we with the science? Obviously we can't say "this bottle of cleaning fluid caused this child to get asthma." What we do know is that several studies have linked exposure to these chemicals with asthma in cleaning workers -- the people who are exposed to them every day. We do know that janitorial workers have twice the rate of asthma as other workers.

With the reproductive toxins, obviously it would be unethical to expose a pregnant woman to these products and then see if it hurts her baby. So instead we rely on animal studies. (Some people, of course, also find animal studies unethical.)

We do know that several of these chemicals get absorbed through the skin, and by breathing them. As previously mentioned, we find chemicals of concern in our blood, urine, breastmilk and umbilical cord blood.

So what do we do in this situation? The evidence is piling up, but we can't say for sure that any single product is harming any one of us. Well, what would you do if something was potentially harming your child? You'd take it away!

In the face of scientific uncertainty, which is where we are now, how do you take action? That part is simple: you take precaution. You think "better safe than sorry." You think "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." These are time-tested ideas for a reason: they're smart, and they keep us safe.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 2

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Section 1 can be found here.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

II. How bad could it be? I bought it at the supermarket.

I want to digress for a moment and discuss chemicals policy in this country. I know that sounds really boring and you're thinking "how wonky can you be?" -- but it's important to understand how chemicals are regulated in the U.S. so we can see how a product that is known to cause asthma or birth defects can be perfectly legal.

This is also the key to understanding a whole constellation of issues - from toxic toys to lead in lipstick to BPA in baby bottles -- that have been in the news lately. I think sometimes these news stories start to feel so arbitrary and overwhelming that it's hard to make sense of them -- is everything toxic? So I want to explain where we are.

As mentioned, most of our laws governing the use of chemicals in consumer products -- the stuff we use every day, like shampoo, makeup, toys, water bottles, furniture, paint, and cleaning products -- come from a mid-20th century ideal that all industry was good.

As a result, the main law governing chemicals in this country, the Toxic Substance Control Act, passed in 1976, literally assumes everything on the market at that point must be safe. This was not based on scientific testing, epidemiology, health studies.... nothing but the political expediency of regulating hundreds of thousands of chemicals: how do you do it?

The way Congress chose was to grandfather in everything on the market in 1976 and leave it on the market with no scrutiny at all. This is still over 90% of chemicals in our products today, almost none of which have ever been tested for their effects on human health.

The law then says that for future chemicals to come on the market, they would have to be submitted to the government before going on the market. And what do you think is required in that pre-market notice? The manufacturer would have to test the chemical and show that it didn't harm human health? No. It didn't cause environmental damage? No. At least it wasn't the worst tool for the job? No.

Basically manufacturers don't have to show any health or safety information at all, unless they happen to have done it on their own. Government has a brief chance to try to spot a problem if they can; otherwise industry can legally put substances on the market without testing them for safety , label them for any variety of uses, and they're good to go.

The end result is that thousands more chemicals have been put on the market since 1976 with little or, often, no information about their safety at all.

So, you might ask, where's the regulation in this regulatory system? As it stands, the EPA has the power to remove a toxic chemical from the market only if the EPA can prove that it's dangerous. This takes years of scientific testing, and often ends in the EPA being sued by the manufacturer of that chemical.

So while years go by, real people are being harmed by these chemicals - the bodies are piling up. We know a whole suite of dangerous chemicals crosses the placenta and can affect a developing baby in utero.

We find chemicals in umbilical cord blood and breastmilk. And still this is not enough for the EPA to take action. In fact, with over 81,000 chemicals on the market, the EPA has restricted only five since 1976.

This is backwards. Instead of the EPA having to prove that a chemical is dangerous before they can take it off the market, a manufacturer should have to show that it's safe before putting it on the market. This is called "shifting the burden of proof," and it is the main reason why so many of the products we live with every day have the potential to harm our health.

It's worthwhile to note that the European Union actually passed a sweeping chemicals reform law recently that does shift the burden of proof and require safety testing from manufacturers before a product is allowed on the market. And as we know, Europe's economy is stronger than ours. In fact, some US manufacturers are now making two parallel product lines: one with dangerous chemicals, for the US market, and one without, for the European Union (you see some products now, like Avalon Organics cosmetics, that say "EU compliant" -- meaning they're selling the same, safer product in the U.S. that they're selling in Europe).

Manufacturers know how to make their products safer in a cost- effective way. There is no reason for this backward system in the US other than bad political decisions.

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Healthy Cleaners in a Changing World, part 1

The bloggers at Conscious Consuming are off on a well-deserved break this week. Instead, we're posting a section of this article each day, Monday-Thursday. Here's Section 1.


(or: How Bad Could it Be? -- I Bought it at the Supermarket.)

By Katie Silberman

The other day I noticed that had a feature on going green. No crunchy Birkenstocks for Oprah, no: instead this was the "gorgeously green lifestyle checklist." It had a long list -- change your light bulbs, use healthy cosmetics, eat organic -- but my favorite part was the end. It had a checklist for your intentions.

Do you wish to become healthier? Do you want to live according to your deepest values? You actually had to check these off.

And I realized that Oprah is right. Like any other behavior change - diet, exercise, that guy you really need to break up with -- first you have to make up your mind that you're ready to act. And to do that, you need some compelling reasons. This article aims to lay out some compelling reasons for changing your life by changing your cleaning products.

I. Are we ready? or: Times Have Changed

To decide whether to change direction, first we have to know where we are. It's important to understand that much of what we currently know as American culture developed in a different time. Our laws, economic system, shopping habits -- the way we manufacture, transport, use, and throw away all our stuff -- was developed in the late 19th and early-to mid-20th centuries.

This was a time when we thought the earth was limitless -- that we could produce as much as we could, extract as much as we could, and therefore dump as much as we could and pollute as much as we could, and there would be no consequences.

Now we know that isn't true. Now we know there are consequences. First, the Earth has only a certain amount of abuse it can handle, as we clearly see with global warming, drought, wildfires, extinction of whole species, and the perfect balance of nature disrupted.

Currently in the San Francisco Bay Area, several counties are rationing water because the snow pack in the Sierras has fallen so much in the past few years that the reservoirs can't serve the cities.

We now know we are capable of destroying our only home.

But our bodies also have a limit to what we can handle. We see this with rising incidence rates of diseases that are linked to environmental exposure. Things like childhood asthma, childhood cancer, and breast cancer -- diseases that could not be rising so fast based on genetics alone.

I don't like to cite statistics because they tend to be more confusing than helpful, but I want to highlight just one: pre-school asthma rates have gone up 160% in less than 15 years. Obviously toddlers haven't changed that much -- trust me, I have one. So what has?

Something is different in the world than it used to be, and our bodies are fighting hard to keep up.

So we see that the Earth has its limits, and our bodies have their limits. But there's one other thing we now understand more clearly than we did 50 or 100 years ago: corporations don't always tell us the truth.

This is relevant to the marketplace of cleaners, because hundreds of products are on the market, sold to us as healthy for our families. We've all seen the ads with adorable babies crawling on sparkling clean floors. What they don't reveal is which chemicals are absorbing into that baby's skin while she's down there.

In fact, we are still living with the consequences of a mid-20th century, post-War conviction that all industry is good, chemicals are the wave of the future, and government should stay out of the way. So where has this gotten us?

Katie Silberman is Associate Director, Science and Environmental Health Network, Contact This piece was originally printed in the Environmental Research Foundation's "Rachel's Democracy and Health News" and is adapted from a presentation to the Jewish Environmental Initiative, St. Louis, MO, May 15, 2008. The author wishes to thank Alexandra Gorman Scranton of Women's Voices for the Earth for her research assistance.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Day 6 of National Downshifting Week: Reclaim Your Time

Day 6 of US National Downshifting Week is about enjoying life. Have you ever wanted to dabble in something, but never seem to make time for it? With so many great ways to unwind your mind and simply feel good, it's just a question of giving yourself permission to give something a try. Greeting card making, painting, gardening, music; whatever rings your bell, make some noise!

A new hobby doesn't require a ton of investment, either. Often you can go onto Freecycle or Craig's List and find just what you're looking for. You can also post a "Wanted" ad if you don't see what you're looking for. I have had nothing but good luck getting rid of things I no longer needed (and getting things I did) using both resources. Positive experiences on both sites also reinforce my sense that the world is a pretty cool place, and that the more connections we make with each other the better and better it gets.

Conclude your week with the Downshifting Pledge; you might even hang it up somewhere to remind you to live your life deliberately, each and every day:

"I hereby pledge to slow my life down a gear for the benefit of my health, my well being, my environment and for those around me whom I dearly love."

The US Downshifting Manifesto ©2008, Susan Donohoe and Tracey Smith

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Day 5 of National Downshifting Week: Buy Local

Day 5 of National Downshifting Week is about supporting local food markets and independent businesses. If you are still looking for a compelling reason to do so, rent The End of Suburbia or borrow it from your local library system. Locally owned shops and vibrant markets form the backbone of our communities; they need our support more than ever before. By making one new purchasing decision each week that favors local seasonal produce or independently-owned business, you are helping to breathe new life into these precious resources.

If you are lucky enough to know a local artist or producer of just about anything (furniture, pottery, jams and jellies, music, etc.), please consider buying from these folks the next time you need something. Research shows that more money is circulated in the community when we support our local producers, rather than having profits go to some centralized corporate office far away. Plus these are the people that give our community it's unique flair and make it feel like home.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Day 4 of National Downshifting Week: Eat Local

Day 4 of our Downshifting Manifesto asks people to make a meal from scratch using fresh, local ingredients. And 'tis the season for reaping fresh fruits and vegetables, all over the U.S. Farmer's markets, community gardens, and CSAs are growing all over the country, thanks to the burgeoning interest in locally produced foods. If you haven't yet checked out Local Harvest and Eat Wild, today's the day to type in your zip code and find out about the local producers near you. So, celebrate the fantastic revival of simple, wholesome dishes. Consider organic, home-grown, and fair trade too. Cooking fresh food is cheaper and can often be quicker than the processed options, with taste and health benefits beyond anything in a box. Enjoy putting your meal together, and enlist the help of the eaters!

If you already eat locally, next time you're out at your favorite supermarket or restaurant be sure to ask what's local on the menu. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and we want those buyers to know that supporting local farmers is important to their customers.

For those of you who are ready to take on the next eating local challenge, try learning to preserve your local produce into the winter, by canning, fermenting, freezing, or dehydrating. You can find some food preservation resources on line, you can order the book Putting Food By, or you can try your local community resources to see if there are food preservation classes offered near you. In my area, Boulder County Going Local sponsored a class with Sandy Cruz, of High Altitude Permaculture, where I learned to dehydrate fruits and vegetables using nothing more than flat baskets and the sun. I also learned to make bread, meusli, saurkraut, kefir, and goat cheese, and now can make these locally all year long. Yum!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Day 3 of National Downshifting Week: Give Back

Day 3 of US National Downshifting Week asks you to donate time or items to a worthy cause. An incredible sense of contentment comes when you give something back to your community. Whether it's donating to your local secondhand store, doing a bit of gardening at your CSA, or volunteering at a hospice, you cannot imagine how much light you shine in the lives of those less fortunate. We've told you about resources like Volunteer Match, Boston Cares, Idealist, and Cool People Care before, but if you haven't done any volunteering since the last holiday season, it's time to step up your commitment.

If you are particularly interested in spreading the "Slow Down and Green Up" message, we have all the resources you need to start a Conscious Consuming Discussion Group in your community. You can also host a screening of The Story of Stuff, form a Simplicity Circle, or lead one of the fabulous Northwest Earth Institute Discussion Groups on Voluntary Simplicity.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Day 2 of National Downshifting Week: Compost and Recycle

Day 2 of our Downshifting Manifesto encourages people to start composting or recycling. I seriously doubt that anyone reading this isn't already recycling. While I could find no data on how many Americans compost, I am guessing it's far fewer than those that recycle. It REALLY isn't hard (it can be as simple as a pile in the corner of the yard, with a little leaves and dirt thrown over your kitchen scraps), but for some reason people find all sorts of excuses, from "I don't know how" to "I'm too lazy." This is the summer to get a compost heap going if you haven't already! There are plenty of on-line resources for backyard composting, or vermi-composting if you live in an apartment in the city (or in bear country). Composting is great; not only do you keep trash out of the waste stream, but you keep methane gas out of the atmosphere and have awesome organic fertilizer for your garden, trees, or house plants.

If you're already recycling and/or composting at home, try to bring these concepts into a local school, your place of work, or a local business in your neighborhood. Start from the premise that the people involved want to do the right thing, but aren't sure how to get started. See if you can help them come up with a plan for starting a compost or recycling project, and help implement the plan. Once people are introduced to the ideas of recycling and composting the seeds of change are planted, and habits begin to sprout (clever turn of phrase or overworked metaphor…I leave it to you to decide).

Day 1 of National Downshifting Week: Say NO to Debt

We're sponsoring US National Downshifting Week this week and we are really excited about the coverage it's received; we have gotten a mention on Cool People Care,, Planet Green, Take Back Your Time, and Elephant, among others. We have a downloadable US Downshifting Manifesto on our website to help people Slow Down and Green Up. If you are just tuning in to US National Downshifting Week, which started Monday, no worries-- you can implement our ideas for downshifting any time of the year.

Today we are asking people to curb debt and prevent future overspending by cutting up a credit card. One of the central tenets of voluntary simplicity is to spend less, so that you can work less and enjoy your life more. I am down to one credit card that I pay off every month, so I'm hanging on to it, but I did go through the process of canceling several cards a few years back. I didn't actually use them, but for some reason I was hanging on to the accounts. After reading a bit about voluntary simplicity I decided to choose one card to keep and close all of the other accounts. I also got off credit card mailing lists by writing to several of the major companies, as well as other junk mail culprits, using the tools on the Center for a New American Dream's website.

I have found that the best way to spend less is to stop creating wants where none existed; stop going to the mall, stop getting catalogs, and mute ads when and if you watch TV. Recently on a vacation someone suggested going to a shopping mall "just to window shop." I declined, explaining that there was nothing I needed, and window shopping just makes me want things (I'm a sucker for art made from natural materials) that I don't need. Instead I sat in a rocking chair with my book, and played a board game with my kids. That's the stuff that vacations are made of!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Americans Support Paid Vacation Law

As the nation celebrates July 4th,  a new poll finds that most Americans don’t have or don’t feel they can take time for “the Pursuit of Happiness,” and more than two-thirds support a law that would guarantee paid vacations for American workers. 

The scientific telephone sample of 1,002 Americans was conducted by The Opinion Research Corporation, a leading professional pollster, during the week of June 23, 2008.

The poll found 69% of Americans saying they would support a paid vacation law, with the largest percentage of respondents favoring a law guaranteeing three weeks vacation or more.  Take Back Your Time advocates a three-week paid vacation law.  Americans under 35 (83%), African-Americans (89%), Hispanic-Americans (82%), and low-income Americans (82%) were the strongest supporters of such a law, as were residents of the Northeast (75%) and the South (72%).  75% of women and 63% of men support a paid vacation law.  74% of families with children support such a law. Every demographic showed majority support for a law.  Overall, only 27% of those polled were opposed to a paid vacation law.


Americans were asked how many weeks of vacation are best to prevent “burnout.”  52% said they need three weeks or more and 82% said they needed at least two weeks. 

Disturbingly though, the survey showed that among working Americans, 28% took no vacation time at all last year, half took a week or less, and two-thirds got less than two weeks off.  The median time off for all workers was 8.2 days, far below the three weeks that most cited as the optimum to prevent burnout, much less actually relax and enjoy themselves.

A growing body of evidence suggests that burnout is just one of the negative consequences of too little vacation time.  Studies have firmly established that men who don’t take vacations are 32% more likely to die of heart attacks and women are 50% more likely.  Lack of vacation time doubles rates of depression for women.  After vacations, workers gain an hour per night of quality sleep and their reaction times are 30-40% faster, improvements that last for several months.

“American work-life is out of balance and this poll shows people know it,” said Cecile Andrews, chair of the Take Back Your Time board.  “The only difference between dinosaurs and American vacations is that dinosaurs are already extinct.  We are losing the breaks we need to stay healthy, avoid stress and bond with our families.  It’s certainly a shame that neither Presidential candidate has addressed this issue.  Maybe this poll will get them to take notice.”

Take Back Your Time just launched a new Web site promoting the idea of a paid vacation law. 

Cleaning Green at Home

Here's an article from the UK about the potential health impact of the traditional cleaning products that you use at home. The article gives scary facts, such as:
the air in [your house] is about two to five times more polluted than the air outside – due entirely to the amount of chemicals in your everyday cleaning products
basically, whatever you put down the drain ends up in your drinking water, so as you drink more water, you get a higher concentration in your body. It ends up in our fish and in plants, which we eat, too.
Scary, huh?

I like this article because it lays out the problems in common ingredients, so you know what to avoid and why. Check it out -- your body will thank you.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Blue Ocean Fishphone

This is the coolest thing since Google Text.

If you're out to dinner and want to order seafood, but can't remember which fish is environmentally sustainable, just text 30644 with the message FISH and the name of the fish. The Blue Ocean Institute will text you back with the answer.

Check it out: Blue Ocean Fishphone

Thanks to JW for this tip!

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sunscreen safety

Turns out that most sunscreens don't protect you and may in fact contain harmful chemicals.

Lots of chemicals used today have not been tested for safety, and those in sunscreens are no different. The Environmental Working Group, as part of the Safe Cosmetics Campaign, has put together a study on sunscreens showing that many of the most popular brands have never been tested by the FDA. It also has recommendations as to the safest sunscreens out there.

For more information, check out the study.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The sound of no bees buzzing

So, this bee population problem is really scaring me.

It seems as if there's a new article everyday about the fact that a high proportion of our bee colonies have been disappearing, and experts don't yet know why.

I wondered how Burt's Bees, a company that is entirely dependent on healthy bee populations, was addressing the problem. They have a page with information about the crisis, which is called Colony Collapse Disorder. One solution they recommend is to plant wildflowers that are native to your region to attract bees and give them food.

For more information, visit The Pollinator Partnership.