February 28, 2013

Nuclear waste leak not surprising

Whoa! A thousand gallon nuclear waste leak in Washington state? Per year?

Some nuclear waste storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are the victim of human and mechanical error. The 177 aging tanks (from the 1940s) had been "stabilized" in 2005. But big oops, maybe not so much.

Now they find six leakers. How long have they been leaking this sludge? The experts are trying to determine that, but it may take months. I'm sure that is not reassuring to anyone living in that area, although federal officials say there is no immediate threat to public safety. What about longterm danger?

This is much more dire than the BP oil leak in the Gulf because there is no available technology to plug the leaks.

53 million gallons of old nuclear waste, some from the Manhattan Project, were stored at this facility. It seems that faulty data analysis meant they did not catch signs of leakage before now.

Betcha other storage tanks across the country are getting another look today. I sure hope the ones across the James River from my backyard (at the Surry Virginia Nuclear Power Plant) are getting a few extra inspections after this bit of alarming news.

February 26, 2013

What is gross negligence?

That is the question as BP begins its defense in a civil trial for 11 deaths and a four million barrel oil spill into the Gulf in 2010.

But other recent disasters should also focus on gross negligence. The captains of Carnival Cruise Line's Triumph and Costa Concordia come to mind when it comes to looking the other way regarding their ships' condition. One captain literally looked the other way as he managed to land the Costa Concordia on a reef, and many died. The other ship captain did not take a litany of mechanical shortcomings seriously and his company faces a lawsuit after the Triumph made "poopdeck" a reality for its passengers and crew.

There are more than 230 cruise ships operating worldwide. Some are "floating cities" with 5000 passengers or more. However, the $35 billion cruise ship industry has little oversight to guarantee the safety of 20 million passengers (the majority being Americans) and thousands of crew members every time a ship leaves a dock. No maritime equivalent of the airline industry's FAA keep ships docked when there is a serious problem. There is a patchwork of federal, state and rarely, local laws and most cruise ships fly Bahamas or Panama flags. Profits before safety looks like the rule.

14 new cruise ships will join the fleet in 2014 and the number of passengers is expected to increase by as much as 8 percent.

The Clean Cruise Ship Act died in Congress in 2010. And state legislators are now adding to the problem. Alaska state lawmakers rolled back tough wastewater standards mandated by voters in 2006 and will allow the 36 cruise ships that travel Alaska’s waters each year to discharge wastewater with less treatment than it currently receives.

Few cruise ship passengers worry too much about the impact their vacations have on local communities. I was most likely the only one on a recent Windstar cruise through the Panama Canal and up the Pacific coast of Costa Rica who asked the captain about the food waste and holding tanks. I was assured that they are collected onboard and safely disposed of on shore. Hmmm. Another Windstar captain a few years ago around the Greek Isles and Turkey told me they discharged in the Mediterranean. No wonder we saw few fish when we had snorkeled there, prior to his bit of news.

That should put more responsibility on local communities that host cruise ships, especially in areas with pristine waters. Mobile and Norfolk are among the cities that have expensive terminals for cruise ships, only to see their terminals later lose business. This is one reason that Mobile was glad to see the Triumph limp into their port. Carnival has only one cruise ship that now departs to the Bahamas from Norfolk. And the residents of Charleston, SC aretone debating the expansion of their city's megadock to permit larger ships.

Few passengers think about the waste streams generated by cruise ships: bilge water that collects in the lowest part of the ship’s hull and may contain oil and grease; sewage; gray water from showers, sinks, laundries and kitchens; ballast water (water taken onboard or discharged from a vessel to maintain its stability); and solid waste (food waste and garbage). But perhaps after the vivid photos of the Triumph, they will.

EPA is assessing the need for additional standards for sewage and graywater discharges from large cruise ships operating in Alaska. But, pun intended, they sometimes operate at glacial speed.

February 22, 2013

Toxic gases from shower curtains?

Is it true that vinyl shower curtains release toxic fumes? I worried about that recently when the housekeeping staff at our Florida timeshare exchanged the moldy shower curtain with a new plastic one. Yegads! I left the bathroom exhaust fan on for two days, trying to get rid of that overpowering smell. I almost took it outside for another day as those chemicals continued to "leach out" into our condo.

Even Money Magazine encouraged reders to Ditch Your Plastic Shower Curtain.

Studies have shown that vinyl shower curtains off-gas over 100 different chemicals when you buy them new. Instead of buying a new vinyl shower curtain next time yours bites the dust, go with fabric (which is washable and much more eco-friendly).

Not all shower curtains that contain vinyl are toxic. But the ones with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) are the culprits.

I bought one labeled "Non PVC" for my daughter at Christmas. I even stuck my nose in the package to be sure.

One study found that PVC shower curtains released up to 108 VOCs over 28 days, and seven of the compounds detected in the study are on the EPA's list of hazardous air pollutants. VOCs can damage the liver, central nervous system, respiratory system, reproductive system, and can contribute to developmental damage. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans. On a day-to-day level, they can cause eye, nose and throat irritation, headaches, nausea and loss of coordination.

Still not convinced? Toluene and ethylbenzene, two of the chemicals released by the shower curtains tested, are on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals known by the State to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity. Under Prop. 65, businesses must not "knowingly and intentionally" expose people to these chemicals without giving "clear and reasonable warning."

High levels of phthalates were also found in the shower curtains examined—which is a problem because phthalates are a pretty unstable chemical. Phthalates migrate in the shower curtain itself, eventually making their way to the surface. When they evaporate into the air, they cling to dust in your home. Phthalates are linked to reproductive problems, including premature labor in pregnant women, early breast development in girls, and sperm damage in boys.

The study also found that some of the chemicals lingered in the air for more than four weeks, which is a long time to be breathing in toxins. And the concentrations were also a concern. The total VOCs detected were 16 times the U.S. Green Building Council's recommended guidelines.

Researchers did not look at the effect of heat and humidity on the shower curtains, but the authors did admit it is likely the heat and humidity would increase the levels of VOCs and other toxins being released into the air-making your showers all the more toxic.

Researchers went looking for policy on phasing out PVC and found out that many retailers are planning to offer more PVC-free shower curtains, but they won't be phasing them out completely.

Look for shower curtains made with PEVA, or polyethylene vinyl acetate, a stable vinyl product that is not associated with any health problems and does not contain any hazardous air pollutants. Where can you get it? Many of Ikea's shower curtains are made with PEVA. (Ikea banned PVC in 1991, so it's a great place to shop for shower curtains.)

If you want to completely eliminate the health concerns associated with vinyl and plastics, you can install a rain showerhead and an organic cotton shower curtain, without a liner. Rain showerheads drop water straight down without too much pressure, eliminating splash. (And they're oh-so-calming; try it once and you may never want to go back!)

If you can't live without a strong spray, your best option is to install glass doors rather than having a shower curtain. It's a little pricy, but consider it an investment in your health.

Pesticides and allergies?

Is there a link?

As the seed catalogs arrive, many of us wish that we could grow more of our food. The American Academy of Pediatrics now warns us about the effect of pesticides on our kids. They have grown up with a “new normal” of pesticide-laden food and increased food allergies—up 18 percent in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007. Is there a connection?

One study reported that high levels of dichlorophenols, a chemical commonly found in pesticides used by farmers and chlorinated tap water, when found in the human body, are associated with food allergies.

Pesticide drift is the term used to describe the phenomenon by which almost 95 percent of pesticides wind up on or in something other than their intended target.

Pesticides are found in more than 90 percent of wells and half the groundwater in urban and agricultural areas. Hundreds of chemicals that target insects and diseases that can afflict crops remain after the crops are harvested, even after produce is washed at home. Department of Agriculture data show that the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, via diet and drinking water. So what is the solution?

Organic fruits and veggies?  Organically grown means no pesticides. Using tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Working Group ranked 53 foods by amount and frequency of pesticide contamination. Here are the top seven foods ranked from most to least contaminated when grown conventionally:
Apples: Out of every 10, nine have traces of a carcinogenic fungicide; eight also have diphenylamine (DPA), linked to bladder tumors. Apples carry 40 other pesticides: carcinogens, hormone disruptors, neurotoxins, developmental toxins.
Celery: The USDA counts 64 pesticides on celery to kill moths, caterpillars and beetles, some by overstimulating their muscles to contract.
Strawberries: Of every two strawberries you enjoy, one probably contains the fungicide captan, a probable carcinogen. It is usually accompanied by fellow fungicide pyraclostrobin, a known skin and eye irritant.
Peaches: They carry residues of 62 pesticides. Almost every other peach has fludioxonil, which targets the liver and kidneys. Some 30 percent of samples contain traces of iprodione, a possible carcinogen, and phosmet, which targets the nervous system of insects and humans, along with our reproductive system.
Spinach: It harbors 48 pesticides. Close to every other leaf has permethrin and imidacloprid, which disrupt nerve signals.
Nectarines: A clean-shaven variety of peach, the nectarine is a little cleaner pesticide-wise but contaminated with the same substances. The USDA counted 33 different residues. At the top of the list is formetanate, a neurotoxin found in every other nectarine you consume.
Grapes: The USDA found traces of 34 pesticides on Chilean grapes. Of every 10 imported grapes, almost three have the fungicide cyprodinil, which can irritate eyes, nose and especially skin. One in 5 has the neurotoxin imidacloprid.

Seven conventionally grown foods that are most safe to eat (ranked from least to most contaminated) include those that you can peel: onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus, sweet peas and mangoes

What are tar sands?

Just in case you are looking for some tar sands . . . 

The nice folks at Grist provided this dandy description but here is a synopsis. First of all no tar sands have yet been found in Virginia. So you can sleep better tonight.

Tar sands are deposits of about 90 percent sand or sandstone, water and clay mixed with only about 10 percent high-sulfur bitumen. If you paid attention back in high school science class, you may remember that bitumen is a viscous black petroleum sludge that is rich in hydrocarbons. It is also known as “natural asphalt.”

The Alberta, Canada tar sands deposit (home to the start of the Keystone pipeline) may hold about 170 billion barrels and it covers an area larger than the state of Florida. The Keystone goal is to pump more than one million barrels of bitumen sludge a day, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.The catch is that the pipeline comes precariously close to a lot of folk's freshwater drinking supply.

Tar sands and nature do not happily coexist. Extracting that bitumen is a gargantuan task, and then you still have sludge, not oil. That is another major task that the refineries in Texas will need to handle--after the slurry gets there via that pesky pipeline that lots of folks want. Click that link above to get the gory details.

Four tons of sand and four barrels of fresh water to fill up a 42-gallon gas tank? Sure seems easier to build a lot of wind turbines out there on those windy plains. But no one asked me!

February 18, 2013

Recycling guns in Virginia

Looks like the elected folks in the Virginia General Assembly have done it again! Somehow I missed a bit of legislation that they passed in 2012 about gun buy back programs in Virginia. These less than stellar minds declared that any guns from these buy backs could not be destroyed, or melted down to create some dandy Glock jewelry. Instead, they required that they be offered at auction to licensed dealers.

Isn't that akin to buying back aluminum cans and throwing them back in roadside ditches? Or they probably believe that they are simply recycling guns now in Virginia. Yup. Recycling them back into the streets and the hands of criminals.

February 12, 2013

Obesogens is a word to add to your vocabulary

"Obesogens" is a term created by University of California's Bruce Blumberg to refer to chemicals that cause animals to store fat. Many of these chemicals are in pesticides.

Yet only 19 percent of doctors warn pregnant women about exposure to pesticides. Only 8 percent warn about BPA found in hard plastics such as insulated tumblers and only 5 percent about phthalates found in cosmetics and shampoo.

The best advice is to eat organic if you are pregnant or plan to be, and avoid plastics to store food unless labelled BPA-free. And the replacement chemical for BPA may prove to be non-healthy too!

And the latest eye-opening news from one study is that these dangers affect geneations. Your great-grandmothers exposures during pregnancy may cause disease in you, while you had no exposure. It's a non-genetic form of inheritance not involving DNA sequence, but environmental impacts on DNA chemical modifications. That is called "transgenerational inheritance of disease" and it should be getting more media coverage.

Chemicals in cosmetics?

It's bad enough that we ingest chemicals every day in our foods and drinking water (see prior post). But we are smearing them on our bodies and washing our hair with them as well.  

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) folks tell us that on the whole, there's no pre-market safety testing required for the chemicals that go into personal care products like your body wash and moisturizer.   "Washington allows the cosmetics industry to self-police their ingredients' safety through its industry-funded Cosmetics Ingredients Review panel, and, as you'd expect, they're pretty lenient on themselves. In 36 years, this industry panel has only rejected 11 ingredients as unsafe for cosmetics. Compare that to the European Union, which has banned more than a thousand chemicals in cosmetics."

EWG researchers have found  some alarming toxic chemicals, including hormone disruptors and carcinogens, in products that people use every day.

If you think you should be able to look at a label and know whether what you're putting in your hair or on your skin is toxic, visit the EWG website for more info.

Worried about pesticides?

Want to know why so many folks prefer organic fruits and veggies?

U.S. Department of Agriculture data show that the average American is exposed to 10 or more pesticides every day, via diet and drinking water.

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns us about the effect of pesticides on our children. Both pesticide use and food allergies in children have increased in the U.S. in the last decade. Is there a connection? One study found that high levels of dichlorophenols, a chemical commonly found in pesticides used by farmers and in chlorinated tap water, may be associated with food allergies.

The EPA tests the toxicity primarily of individual pesticide agents, but there is increasing concern about the combined effects of consuming many chemicals at one time—even in small amounts.