Five years ago, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) made a landmark decision to foster the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay. The agency’s plan was the Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL), the goal of which was to identify and control major sources of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the seven Bay jurisdictions (six states and the District of Columbia) that comprise the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The TMDL effort calls for a 25 percent reduction in nitrogen, a 24 percent reduction in phosphorus, and a 20 percent reduction in sediment in the Bay Read More >
For the eleventh entry in our series “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” we asked biofuels expert Donna Perla, MPH, senior advisor with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development, for her thoughts on the future of the biofuels industry.
Patti Truant: What’s new in the world of biofuels right now? What do you think are the greatest opportunities and challenges right now in moving toward a more bio-based economy?
Donna Perla: I think there are several. One is that the industry has really evolved. Certainly it started with corn ethanol, but there still is this push for cellulosic ethanol. Read More >
Also contributing to this story is Dennis Keeney, PhD, MS. | Over the next six months, this bimonthly blog series, “Corn-Fed Cars: On the Road with Ethanol,” will initiate a conversation about ethanol and the current environmental and economic impacts of its use. This first post addresses the progression of ethanol use in the U.S., and the forces that have gotten us to where we are today.
This June at the “Iowa Corn Indy 250,” flags touting “Iowa Corn” and t-shirts promoting “Corn Power” were a common sight at the Newton, Iowa racetrack. The slogans are no surprise, given two facts: first, that the race is sponsored by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, and second, fellow racing giant NASCAR’s announcement last year that they will partner with American ethanol producers to fuel its fleet with a gasoline blend containing 15 percent corn ethanol.
At a time when the buzz about corn ethanol seems to have died down on the coasts, its advocates are speaking up, and production in the Midwest continues to ramp up to record levels in light of government subsidies and mandates that spurred the growth of the industry over the last decade. Today, 40 percent of the corn crop in the U.S. goes to ethanol production. Read More >
Nina Federoff, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and professor at Penn State University penned an opinion piece in the New York Times recently, asking for less regulation of genetically engineered (GE) crops. Professor Federoff would like to see more grant money available for research and more scientists working on the development of GE foods, but she states in her article that the regulatory bars of the EPA, USDA, and FDA are set too high and are stifling scientists from making innovations.
Ignoring the rest of her argument that GE seeds dramatically improve crop yields (they don’t and in fact agricecological farming methods are not only better for the environment but better for yields), reduce the use of chemicals (they don’t; pesticide use has increased since the introduction of GE crops in the U.S.), improve the lives of farmers (not in India or the U.S.), and have not been shown to cause harm to the environment (she forgot about the development of superweeds, pollution of waters, and harm to soil), let’s focus on her idea that regulations are too complicated and stringent. As you will see, this is simply not the case. In fact, regulations may be too lax, as they allow corporations driven by profit, not protecting public health, to drive the research (or lack thereof) to demonstrate safety, and, as well explained in many of the above articles, the U.S. experience with GM crops has indeed led to environmental problems. Read More >
Many public health hazards are too small to see. This is especially true of engineered nano-materials, or ENMs. As their name implies, these materials are small—no more than a few hundred nanometers in diameter. (For perspective, one nanometer is one billionth of a meter, or one human hair split lengthwise 80,000 times!)
Sounds cool, right? But consider this: ENMs’ small size could increase the health risk they pose for humans exposed to them. There are a number of possible reasons for this. Significantly smaller than most toxicants, some ENMs may be able to pass more easily through cell membranes, thereby reaching tissues other toxicants cannot. (For an overview, see this lengthy 2009 review from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)
ENMs are probably in thousands of products. I say “probably” because no one, including government regulators, knows for sure how many—let alone which—products contain them. One estimate, from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies, put the minimum number at 1,300 and predicted an increase to 3,400 by 2020. Read More >
What’s Cooking in your ‘Soil Kitchen’?
There is probably lots cooking but you might not like all that’s on the menu. So if you are an urban agriculturalist in the mid-Atlantic (NYC-Philadelphia-Baltimore-DC) area scratching your head about all this talk of soil contamination, grab a soil sample and head to an upcoming art event.
‘Soil Kitchen’, a temporary art installation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, is planned for April 1-6, 2011. FutureFarmers, an art group from San Francisco, was commissioned by the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to organize ‘Soil Kitchen’ with support from the William Penn Foundation. Local experts as well as staff of the US Environmental Protection Agency are also providing technical support as this event was scheduled to coincide with the free national Brownfield conference, April 3-5, 2011.
‘Soil Kitchen’ will address a range of issues from teaching about soil, composting, how to collect soil samples and connecting with local food systems to how to construct a wind turbine with found material. Workshops also have been scheduled to introduce low tech and low cost ways to remediate urban soils using permaculture methods as well as tour local gardens.
‘Soil Kitchen’ participants that bring soil samples will be able to get free tests of soil. Lead, arsenic and cadmium were the metals proposed for free tests (additional elements can create testing interferences). In cooperation with the organizers, the EPA has arranged to have their mobile lab and staff with two x-ray fluorescence analyzers (XRF) to test soils and provide real time results of soil samples during the conference.
While not the only contaminants of concern in urban (and rural) growing areas, metals, particularly lead, receive a great deal of focus. In Philadelphia, as well as many of our older cities and towns with an industrial past and legacy sites, these concerns may be well founded. Eckel et al reported seven of the eight sites in Philadelphia and Baltimore sampled exceeded the EPA soil screening level of 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead for residential reuse while three exceeded the industrial reuse standard of 1000 ppm lead.
Do urban agriculturalists consider or know of these legacy sites?
Many community gardeners plan and plant raised bed gardens to avoid contamination concerns. However, larger scale urban agricultural efforts may have difficulties with raised agricultural operations at scale and may need to pursue in-ground growing. A recent Planning Advisory Service report by the American Planning Association on Urban Agriculture, as part of their food system planning efforts, noted many innovative urban agriculture models in the US and Canada. The authors noted there is much still to do in factoring in the potential for environmental contamination or industrial legacy sites as part of planning urban agricultural activities. Read More >
To protect yourself from harmful germs wash your hands, for at least 20 seconds, with plain old soap and water.
That simple advice might be the take-away message from last week’s Food and Water Watch-sponsored congressional briefing on triclosan, an antibacterial agent found in hundreds of antibacterial soaps and other personal products from toothpaste to cosmetics to deodorant.
Food and Water Watch wants the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration to ban triclosan, citing its ubiquity in the human body and discharge into the environment. In 2008, CDC data identified triclosan in the urine of 75 percent of the population, of concern because animal studies have found triclosan can act as an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with hormone functions, and can result in adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological or immune effects. When triclosan breaks down, it can turn into dioxins, which are known carcinogens. The health risks from triclosan need to be better characterized for humans, although there likely exists enough evidence for federal agencies to consider banning it from consumer products.
According to some environmental and health experts, the use of antibacterial soaps containing triclosan is overkill in most non-medical uses, and there may be negative consequences as the compound makes its way through our bodies and into the environment.
“Consumers have an appetite for antibacterial soap regardless of whether or not there is an indication for it,” said Dr. Larry Weiss, the chief technology officer at natural soap company CleanWell, and a physician and expert on natural chemistry and epidemiology. “We need to think more about when it makes sense to use an antimicrobial and when it doesn’t.” Read More >
Mention the biofuel ethanol from corn in anything but glowing terms in Iowa five years ago and one had probably best apply for witness protection. Created by political pressure from the corn and the high fructose corn syrup industry with the lobbying from ADM and later other corn-related lobby groups, corn ethanol went from a few million gallons, as an afterthought from the wet milling industry, to about 12 billion gallons per year today (the numbers are approximate, plants are opening and closing depending on market conditions). This will require close to 4 billion bushels of corn (each bushel of corn on average supplies about 2.8 gallons of ethanol). In the process ethanol production uses about 36 billion gallons of water just for processing, and requires about 20 million acres of corn land. All this to displace about 8.5 billion gallons of gasoline (ethanol has about 67% of the energy per volume as does gasoline). Further it requires about 7 gallons of diesel fuel equivalent to produce 10 gallons of ethanol when one accounts energy to grow the corn, deliver it to the processing plant, and to process the corn to ethanol. Therefore the net energy gain is about 3-4 billion gallons of gasoline equivalent. We have about 245 million cars in this country. If each car used 20 gallons of gas per year less–by improved efficiency and driving less–we could save nearly 5 billion gallons of gas, more than the ethanol that is being produced by the industry when put in energy equivalents.
Corn is King in the Midwest. Iowa produces over 2.2 billion bushels and sends about one-third of its crop to ethanol plants. That is the base of the ethanol madness–create a market for more corn where no existed before. And it has worked so far, thanks to government support.
Much of the rest of the corn goes to feed livestock and for export. Only about 10% can truly be said to be made into food products, and that includes the unhealthy HFCS. Trailing corn, but still very important is the legume, soybeans. Biodiesel from soybean oil has been on the burner for several years but the economics have never worked out.
The corn ethanol lobby has been hoisted on its own petards. They calculated that if they mandated ethanol use, the market would follow. This worked for the first 7 billion gallons. Since we burn about 130 billion gallons of gasoline a year, the blend of up to 10% ethanol would not be an issue. But in 2007 the mandate was progressively increased and soon will be 15 billion gallons. Simple math says that there will have to be more than 10% ethanol in all of our gasoline to meet the mandate. So the industry asked EPA to raise the “blend wall” to 15% by the end of 2009. EPA is still studying the request. They are concerned with engine component damage and air pollution issues. Time will tell. Another industry answer was a blend of up to 85% ethanol. That has not worked out, because the extra pumps cost more than they return in profits, and few buy E85 both because it performs less satisfactorily and because not many cars and trucks are capable of using E85 without engine component damage. Read More >
A round of applause for Washington Post reporter Ezra Klein for pointing out last week the undeniable fact that meat production is a major contributor to global warming, and that consumers can make a difference by cutting out their meat consumption just one day a week. How big a difference in greenhouse gases reduction it would make in the United States has long been a topic of debate, and something I’ve wanted to clarify for quite a while. Before I explain why, I want to make it clear that there is more than enough evidence that shows reducing meat consumption nationwide would lead to dramatic improvements in environmental degradation, widespread public and personal health risks, animal welfare and environmental and social justice issues.
First off, I’m pleased to see that mainstream media outlets are finally increasing their coverage of food systems’ effects on climate change. Believe it or not, it’s taken a while for the news gatekeepers to catch on. Last year Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s research and policy director Roni Neff published a paper in the journal of Public Health Nutrition that found U.S. newspaper coverage did not reflect the increasingly solid evidence of climate change effects due to current food systems. Read More >
It was meant to be the kickoff of a national conversation, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sponsored meeting on chemical exposures and public health, held in Washington last week, felt more like an argument at times.
The meeting started off predictably enough—with Howard Frumkin, the director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, discussing the importance of strengthening scientific understanding of chemical exposures, urging better collaboration among public health agencies, local governments and non-governmental organizations, and outlined the goal of developing an action agenda for strengthening the public health approach to chemical exposures. This agenda, he said, should be based on values everyone can get behind—including prevention of morbidity and mortality, good science, the effective use of resources, care for vulnerable populations, and responsible stewardship for future generations.
Lisa Jackson, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, won the loudest applause of the day for her remarks. Jackson, who leads a staff of 18,000 at the EPA, said she aims to restore America’s faith in the EPA to protect them and preserve the environment. By refocusing on core issues such as chemical management, reporting requirements, environmental justice, land use management—Jackson hopes to bring increased accountability to the agency. Read More >