Archive for July, 2009

The sunscreen scare

“Understanding the laws of nature does not mean that we are immune to their operations.” David Gerrold

We all know that too much UV exposure from the sun can cause wrinkles, skin damage and possibly lead to cancer. So, to combat this potential hazard we apply sunscreen; yet, according to a recent report, slathering on the wrong sunscreen can bring hazards of its own.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization using public information to protect public health and the environment, released the report that states in an EWG analysis of 1,614 name-brand sunscreens on the market in this summer, three out of five sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns.

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Among these ingredients are micronized and nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which provide strong UVA protection but can also have toxic qualities if absorbed through the skin or inhaled into the lungs. Another possible threat are those sunscreen ingredients that supposedly absorb into the blood; these are said to release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, to disrupt hormone systems, to cause allergic reactions and to build up in the body or the environment.

The report did offer some good news, though: 70 percent of sunscreens this year contain strong UVA filters, compared to just 29 percent last year. Also, 19 percent fewer sunscreens contain oxybenzone, an active ingredient that disrupts the hormone system.

But before you panic, it’s important to know there is always another side to every story. In a New York Times article, some serious holes were poked in the EWG study. According to the article, “dermatologists who reviewed the group’s research say the biggest problem is that it lacks scientific rigor. In particular, they are critical of a sunscreen rating system that they say is arbitrary and without basis in any accepted scientific standard.”

The article also states the research on oxybenzone is limited. Dr. Darrell S. Rigel, a clinical professor of dermatology at New York University (who is also a skin cancer researcher), is quoted as saying, “Nobody’s seen any problems from years of these agents being used. To call it dangerous is misleading.”

So what do you do with all the potentially scary hype about sunscreen the report has created? Dr. Sandra Read, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Dermatology, says she finds the report discouraging but says she hopes it will raise awareness of the need for sunscreen.

That seems like the right approach. There will always be new controversies arising over safety issues of ingredients and new research being conducted to try to answer what may be unanswerable questions. However, as of now, sunscreen is one effective way of protecting yourself from the sun’s harmful radiation.

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If you’re concerned about potential health hazards caused by sunscreen, stick to natural sunscreens that limit or eliminate the suspected problem-causing ingredients. The EWG offers a list of the best sunscreens to use. Among the contenders are Soleo Organics, Lavera Neutral and Purple Prairie Botanicals.

Of course, there are other ways to protect yourself from the sun. Wearing hats and sunglasses, staying in the shade, wearing lightweight clothing and avoiding being in contact with UV rays at peak hours are all important factors in keeping your skin — and the environment (think sunscreen chemicals mixing in water supplies from swimming) — healthy and happy.

For more information about sun protection, check out this video, which features advice from Dr. Sandra Read.


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It’s getting hot (or cold) in here

“The system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self-balancing, self-adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology.”E.F. Schumacher

E.F. Schumacher had it right: Technology can’t seem to regulate itself the same way nature can. But, some creations in this technological age do have the ability to make some of their own adjustments, and programmable thermostats are a good example.

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These thermostats can be programed to automatically reduce heating and cooling in your home when you don’t need as much, and they are one of the easiest ways you can save energy, money and help fight global warming.

We’re currently in the throes of summer, and temperatures can get a bit uncomfortable. Informational “going green” Web site states that cooling accounts for nearly half the energy used by the average home during the summer, according to the EPA. Energy Star broadens that sad picture, explaining that the average household spends more than $2,200 a year on energy bills — nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling.

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By using a programmable thermostat, you can adjust the times you turn on the heating or air conditioning through a pre-set schedule, according to the US Department of Energy. For every degree you lower the thermostat in the winter or raise it in the summer, you’ll save between 1 percent and 3 percent of your heating and cooling bill. You can save around 10 percent a year of your bill by simply turning your thermostat back 10 degrees to 15 degrees for eight hours.

Programmable thermostats can cost as little as $30 to as much as $300 depending on how fancy you get them, although they will pay for themselves in energy savings.

But what if you’re either a.) not in the market for a thermostat, or b.) don’t have a thermostat to replace? Well, there are other options. Another energy-saving solution is to purchase a Cool-n-Save, which attaches to almost any home air conditioning unit. The system costs about $100, but it’s supposed to save you 30 percent on your electric bill.

Additional options involve working with what you already have. The US Department of Energy suggests keeping your house warmer than normal when you are away and lowering the setting to 78°F (26°C) only when you are at home and need cooling. Or, if you really want to save (and don’t have pets at home that need a cooler temperature), try turning off your air conditioner about 10 minutes before you leave the house, so that you still feel cool prior to heading out. You should also be sure to clean and to maintain your air-conditioning unit properly.

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The best option for saving energy and money: Don’t use an air conditioner at all. E/The Environmental Magazine suggests using table top or ceiling fans, which use about only 1/30th the electricity of a room air conditioner. Even better yet, just throw open a couple windows and let nature do its thing.

As Schumacher said, nature is self-balancing, self-adjusting and self-cleansing. Why not let a little bit of that goodness flow through your house now and then? It’ll beat air conditioning any day, I guarantee it.

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American Idle

“You go into a community and they will vote 80 percent to 20 percent in favor of a tougher Clean Air Act, but if you ask them to devote 20 minutes a year to having their car emissions inspected, they will vote 80 to 20 against it. We are a long way in this country from taking individual responsibility for the environmental problem.”William D. Ruckelshaus

Fact: The easiest way to clear the air of pollutants caused by automobile emissions is to stop driving.

Fact: Not everyone can ride a bike or walk to where he or she needs to be every day.

While it is very true that biking and walking reduce automobiles’ CO2 emissions, there are several ways to cut down the dirty air and still be behind the wheel. One such way is to always be driving.

Time spent idling your car’s engine not only hurts the air quality, but it also wastes away your gas. Overall, idling Americans burn 2.9 billion gallons of gas a year, worth around $78.2 billion, according to a recent report from Texas A&M. That’s nearly $27 per gallon — wasted. Looking at those figures in terms of air quality, Vanderbilt law professor Mike Vandenbergh says, “[US] drivers who idle their cars and light trucks in driveways, school pick-up lines, to ‘warm up’ a car or while waiting in fast-food or bank drive-through lines account for 17 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions each year.”

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Some states have enacted anti-idling laws to curb drivers’ wastefulness, but in many places those laws aren’t stringently enforced. In response, many communities have organized their own “no idling zones” around churches and schools. And speaking of schools, as one of the biggest offenders, diesel school buses now face laws as well, since Clean School Bus USA launched the National Idle-Reduction Campaign to promote idle reduction, among other things.

Everyone can do his or her part to reduce emissions caused by idling whether under possible penalty of law or not. The Environmental Defense Fund states that idling for more than 10 seconds uses more gas and emits more global warming pollution than restarting your car. While it doesn’t make sense to turn off your car at every stop sign or stop light, you should cut the engine when stuck in traffic that’s not moving or when waiting outside for someone.

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Another common idling time is before you head out on your drive on a cold winter day. The Environment Defense Fund argues against the typical pre-drive warm-up, stating that the best way to warm up a car in winter months is to drive it, but when the temperature is below freezing, give it 30 seconds — that’s all you need.

Vandenbergh says, “If every American can reduce his or her carbon emissions by one percent, we decrease our total carbon emissions by 41 billion pounds a year.” So the next time you’re waiting in the driveway for your special someone, shut off your engine. That one twist of the hand brings you one step closer to saving our environment.

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You give me butterflies

“Because we don’t think about future generations, they will never forget us.”Henrik Tikkanen

It’s an insect that some people say brings good luck if it lands on you, but the butterfly is more than just a lucky charm. Butterflies are an important part of every ecosystem, but because of  increased clearing of land for development, their habitats are dwindling. In fact, Sir David Attenborough, the long-time face and voice of several British natural history programs, said Britain will face an “environmental catastrophe” unless immediate action is taken to save the country’s butterflies from extinction. Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine the same outcome for the US.

People who are interested in helping to preserve butterfly populations or who are simply fascinated by their beauty can bring butterflies to their own backyard by creating an eco-friendly butterfly garden. Attracting butterflies doesn’t have to be a bank-breaker or huge time commitment; all it takes is the right plants, a good environment and a little patience.

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Developing your garden can be broken down into three basic steps:

1.) Location

Choose a location in your backyard that receives at least five to six hours of sunlight daily. Make sure the spot doesn’t get too windy, as butterflies don’t like to struggle to feed in a strong breeze. A good spot may be near a tree line or wall of shrubbery that would block the majority of the wind.

2.) Research

Once you’ve chosen a good location for your butterfly garden you need to research two things — first, which butterflies are in your area, and second, which plants and flowers will grow best in your area and attract those butterflies. As a general rule, butterfly-friendly plants include cornflowers, milkweed, goldenrod, willows, passion vine and hydrangeas. Keep in mind, though, that different butterflies like different flowers. Along with nectar food for mature butterflies, be sure to include larval food for caterpillars, and it’s best to select native plants rather than exotic species.

It is said that mature butterflies are attracted to vibrant colors, such as yellows, oranges, pinks and purples. Plan to have blooming plants from late spring to early fall.

3.) “Accessories”

With the correct selections at hand, it’s time to begin planting. To make your garden as environmentally friendly as possible, do not apply any pesticides or chemicals to your soil. In addition to your plants and flowers, butterflies also require a water source. Butterflies will not drink from open or deep areas, so the source needs to be kept shallow. Creating a small pit in mud or sand can provide the right amount of water for the insects, as well as does placing a small container in the soil. Just be sure to fill it with sand to keep it shallow.

Finally, add a few rocks to both the water source and the garden itself. These will provide the butterflies with resting places where they can also sun themselves.

While your backyard garden will never be a substitute for the butterflies’ natural habitat, it will give them a safe place to grow and thrive, even if only temporarily. The more effort you put into making a satisfactory home for the butterflies, the more satisfaction you’ll receive while you watch them flitzing about.

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The new and improved Peter Cottontail

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold

Cotton. It has to be one of the most comfortable materials to wear. It’s lightweight, breathable and feels good. But in order to grow the cotton to make your favorite clothes, farmers often pump dozens of harmful chemicals into the ground.

Just as eating organically grown food is growing in popularity, so is purchasing organically grown cotton clothing. When something is “organically grown,” it basically means the food or fibers were  produced without using most pesticides, fertilizers or other harmful chemicals that seep and mix into the soil. These chemicals can affect future vegetation and animal life for years. And if that doesn’t hit home hard enough, maybe this will: These same chemicals can make their way into the water table, or the level of water stored under the soil — water that we may very well drink.

The Pesticide Action Network of North America states that each year cotton producers around the world use nearly $2.6 billion worth of pesticides — more than 10 percent of the world’s pesticides and nearly 25 percent of the world’s insecticides.

Organic farmers are using natural practices to combat these unnatural chemicals. By replacing pesticides with helpful insects, fertilizers with composting and chemicals with good old-fashioned weeding, organic farmers produce good quality cotton without battering the land. According the USDA, “Organic farming has become one of the fastest growing segments of U.S. agriculture. U.S. producers are turning to certified organic farming systems as a potential way to lower input costs, decrease reliance on nonrenewable resources, capture high-value markets and premium prices, and boost farm income.”

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It is true that organic cotton clothing costs a bit more than the non-organic, chemical-laden kind. But the benefits of a natural, environmentally friendly product should outweigh the costs. Plus, entire lines of organic clothing are being created frequently, and the clothing incorporates stylish shirts, pants and undergarments for men and women, as well as for babies. For an added environmental bonus, not only sells organic t-shirts but also offers a program in which you can send back your already-worn shirts in any condition for store credit.

The next time you’re in the market for some new clothes, consider buying organic. Slipping into your new purchases will never feel so rewarding.

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Keeping the bugs at bay

“There’s so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there’d be no place to put it all.”Robert Orben

Nothing says summer more than relaxing in the sunshine, getting together with friends and sharing a meal in the great outdoors. However, with all the excitement, it’s easy to forget about the damage all the good times may be having on one’s health and the environment.


No one likes bugs crashing the fun, but you may want to think twice before whipping out the bug spray. It turns out, bug spray could be harming more than just bugs. Two chemicals commonly found in bug repellents (among a host of other items) were responsible for nearly 30 percent of human incident adverse-reaction reports in the US in 2007, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

For a safer alternative, use a citronella oil-based repellent. The EPA states that citronella oil shows little to no toxicity, as well as minimal to no risks to wildlife, so it is not harmful to health or environment. Companies such as Burt’s Bees and Badger Balm have safe repellents for less than $10, and these products are DEET- and chemical-free.

You can also find citronella oil candles. has eco-friendly, soy citronella candles for less than $5 (plus shipping).


Still concerned about pesky mosquitoes? Try using lavender oil to repel the persistent insects. Supposedly mosquitoes have a very limited olfactory system but are extremely sensitive to carbon dioxide, the gas we breathe out as waste. Luckily, lavender oil temporarily blocks their ability to smell and keeps the insects from finding and feeding on you. Hood River Lavender Farms sells organic lavender oils and spritzers for $6 to $12.

If you have your own lavender plants, you can make your own lavender oil. While there are several different methods, wikiHow seems to offer the quickest and easiest way. In case of a needed instant fix, simply rub the plant itself on your skin. The best places to put the lavender oil (or plant) are on your ankles, wrists and behind your ears. Lavender as a repellent, however, only lasts about two hours, so fairly frequent re-application is necessary.


I know what you’re thinking: It’s food that brings the bugs, so how can it possibly keep them away? Easy. Ants just don’t like certain foods. For a natural and non-harmful way to deter ants, try creating a food barrier. Salt, cinnamon, chili or cayenne pepper and lemon juice are all supposed to stop ants in their tracks. Another popular trick is setting out cucumber peels, especially bitter ones. Many ants appear to have a natural aversion to the vegetable.

Protecting yourself from bugs and their bites doesn’t have to come at a price. The environment, your health and your wallet can all benefit from a little thoughtfulness when choosing insect repellents. The only things that won’t be thanking you are the bugs themselves.

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To be or not to be

“I’m not an environmentalist.  I’m an Earth warrior.”  – Darryl Cherney

According to Merriam-Webster, green is defined as a) relating to or being an environmentalist political movement; b) concerned with or supporting environmentalism; or c) tending to preserve environmental quality (as by being recyclable, biodegradable, or nonpolluting).

Going green, therefore, can be defined as making the conscious decision to live a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. It’s not an easy choice to make because, well, nothing is easy, and changing the way you’ve lived after so many years of habit is no exception. What’s important to keep in mind is this: Even the smallest steps, the littlest changes, can make a world of difference.

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A while ago I was Googling random environmental phrases, and I stumbled upon this quiz. I was feeling somewhat adventurous and knowledgeable, so I took it. And then I failed. Viewing my certificate that may as well have had “YOU SUCK” stamped in big red letters, I realized that I didn’t know all that much about the world of eco-friendliness. Was I embarrassed? Maybe a little. Was I discouraged? No way. (And that wasn’t just because the quiz used British words and kept mentioning Singapore, two things that quite honestly baffle me).

The point is, you don’t have to be a know-it-all to start low-impact living that will help our environment. There are countless — and simple — ways in which you can reduce your carbon footprint, or the impact your actions have on the planet. Once you see the damage you’ve done, you can take action to stop and to reverse it. And that doesn’t have to mean making radical life changes. You don’t have to go vegan or purchase a hybrid car if you don’t want to. You can just alter a few things here and there and begin to make a difference.

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If you decide that living environmentally friendly is a challenge you’re willing to try, I hope you’ll check back to this blog on occasion. Consider it a source of the easier-way-out tidbits for the more environmentally lazy challenged, such as myself.

Remember, it’s all about the small steps. So, after you’ve finished reading, shut down your computer, unplug it and take that first step.

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