August 25, 2005
ESPN, that unlikeliest of sustainabilty sources, posted a terrific article recently. Author Jim Caple points out that progressives should stop poking fun at President Bush's rather obsessive bicycling--a habit that recently included a ride with Lance Armstrong. Instead, we should hope he goes "much, much further."
After all, the Texas duo--Bush and Armstrong--should be poster children for a national call to bicycling as alternative to driving and a sensible way to conserve oil.
Caple breaks it down this way:
Think about it this way. The average American drives 12,000 or so miles per year. If we rode our bikes just 10 miles per week... that would cut use by 500 miles, or around 4 percent. Because cars and SUVs account for 40 percent of U.S. oil use, that could reduce the country's oil consumption by 1.6 percent. That doesn't sound like much, but it's roughly the equivalent to 100 million barrels. That's not going to end our reliance on foreign oil but at least it would be a start in that direction.
Now, if only Bush would seize the opportunity to publicly ask, as Caple puts it,
What's a better show of real patriotism -- cutting foreign oil consumption by occasionally riding a bike or slapping a flag sticker on your SUV that gets 11 miles to the gallon?
Dumb headline (unless you're a Fantastic Four fan), but a serious subject. A new chemical analysis, being released today by California EPA scientists at an international scientific conference in Toronto, shows that 30 percent of Northwest moms tested in NEW's 2004 toxics study had higher levels of the toxic flame retardants PBDEs in their bodies than of well-known chemical threats PCBs. This study is a follow-up to the PBDE study of Northwest women that we did last year.
The study provides pretty unambiguous evidence that PBDEs have emerged as a major toxic menace. And it suggests that, if recent trends continue, PBDEs could soon overtake PCBs as the most dominant "organohalogen" pollutant in people's bodies.
And an interesting -- and probably significant -- side note to the study was that there was no correlation between PCB and PBDE levels. This suggests that they may get into people's bodies through different pathways. At this point, the principle source of PCB contamination in people is food, particularly fish. For PBDEs, nobody is sure; but a recent exposure modeling study from Canada suggests that ordinary housedust, containing minute quantities of PBDEs sloughed off from furniture and the like, may be the principle route of exposure in people. (More here.)
Some context is in order. PBDEs are fire retardants that are added to furniture foams, industrial fabrics, consumer electronics, and a number of other products. They're pretty good at preventing fires. But in recent years, scientists have noticed an alarming rise in the concentration of PBDEs in peoples bodies -- in their blood, in fatty tissues, and in breast milk alike. Concentrations of the compounds appeared to be doubling every two to five years. Ecologists have found similar rises in marine sediments and wildlife. As it turns out, PBDEs didn't stay put in consumer products; minute quantities would leach out into the environment and ultimately wind up sequestered in living things, including people.
At the same time that this rapid rise was detected, new evidence was uncovered that PBDEs may have similar health effects as their close chemical cousins, the PCBs. Tests on laboratory animals showed that a dose of PBDEs during a critical phase of early development could cause memory deficitis and behavioral aberrations -- effects very similar to those caused by PCBs. The two chemicals may actually work together, either additively or synergistically, to cause harm.
Last year, Northwest Environment Watch commissioned an analysis of 40 breastmilk samples from Northwest moms, 10 each from Washington, Oregon, BC, and Montana. The study found that the moms had among the highest median PBDE levels on record. (Yoiks!)
The problem isn't breastmilk per se; we tested breastmilk just because it was the most convenient way to get a biological sample that's high in fat, since PBDEs adhere to fat. As far as I know, every epidemiological study that has looked at the issue has concluded that, except in extremely rare cases of PCB poisoning, breastfeeding is by far the best and healthiest choice for infants. The major risk of PCBs appears to be during fetal development; and the benefits of breastfeeding may actually mitigate the potential harms caused by PCB or PBDE exposure in utero. So, seriously, if you're a nursing mom, keep breastfeeding. Please. Really.
The bottom line of this study is that, even though PCB levels are still higher than PBDE levels, we may soon be approaching a point at which PBDEs are more of a concern than PCBs. And from this I draw 3 lessons. First, we should be paying close attention to PBDE levels in the coming years, to see whether PBDE levels continue to rise in people. Second, we should be looking at ways of removing PBDE-laden products from people's homes.
And third, we need to learn our lesson about the risks posed by untested chemicals. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that PBDEs posed some risk -- their chemical structure is very similar to that of PCBs, dioxin and DDT. So that alone should have triggered some elementary testing requirements before the compounds were used widely commerce. But it didn't. At some point, we've got to learn the lesson, and take steps to make sure this sort of chemical fiasco -- releasing potentially harzardous compounds without adequate testing -- doesn't keep happening again and again and again.
August 24, 2005
Oops, We Logged It Again
Hot off the presses: the controversial Biscuit Fire salvage logging in the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon has yielded a rather atrocious mistake. US Forest Service officials mis-marked the logging boundaries and accidentally approved 17 acres of cutting (apparently clearcutting) inside the 350-acre Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area, which is supposed to protect--you guessed it--a rare tree and other rare plants.
Salvage logging in the region has been enormously contentious. Interestingly, one element of the controversy centered on who should mark the boundaries of timber sales. In fact, a conservation group won a court judgment to force the Forest Service to mark public timber sales rather than letting loggers do it.
One can only imagine the mistakes the timber industry might make if it were in charge of drawing the boundaries. The Babyfoot Lake mistake was only discovered through the vigilance of the Siskiyou Project, a local environmental group that's watch-dogging the salvage logging.
Among the scars left from the accidental logging in the protected area: a new logging road bulldozed in and 290 stumps, including one from a tree that was 234 years old. Read the full Seattle Times account here.
August 23, 2005
Obesity rates are growing in every state but Oregon, according to a new report by Trust for America's Health based on data from the CDC. (Read the Seattle Times article here.) While Oregonians can be proud of their accomplishment last year, they are not the trimmest state in the country, nor in the Northwest.
Interestingly, every Northwest state has lower rates of obesity than the national average. Montana residents are least likely to be obese; Alaskans are most likely. As Jessica pointed out recently, it's worth paying attention to obesity trends, not only because of their health consequences, but because it can absorb a lot of money.
Here's the skinny on obesity in the Northwest states...
Percent of state residents who are obese, 2004
Percent of residents who are obese, 2004
Percent of residents who are obese, 2004
August 22, 2005
Smog Cops vs. Social Justice
And in other news from the remote sensing front, there was an interesting article in the LA Times last week about the South Coast Air Quality Management District's testing of an automated device that measures tailpipe emissions (free subscription required). The article explains that testing has begun for a remote sensing device that measures tailpipe emissions and photographs an offender's license plate for ticketing.
The technology has been around for some years now. And it's about time for deployment.
But it's also worrisome from a social justice perspective. The article fails to mention if the SCAQMD [we used to say "squawk mud"] program will ensure that the poor's only mode of transport is not eliminated if they cannot afford the full cost of retrofit. Sure, there are freeloaders that dilute their actions throughout society. But many of the polluting vehicles are the only cars the poor can afford in a transit-unfriendly town -- the under- or less-well employed often cannot rely on transit to get to work.
I know when I lived in Sacramento, another transit-unfriendly town, I could only take transit to a narrow range of choices. (Riding my bike 14 miles to work took, literally, one-third the time of transit, and I'm fit.) The same is true in LA. Not having a car in LA is not an option if you wish to feed your family.
There is not just one solution to reducing outstanding polluters. As Mark Hertsgaard found in Earth Odyssey, most people on the planet wish to decrease their pollution. They just can't afford to. They're too busy just trying to get by.
This new emissions device cannot be used as a blunt instrument: We must ensure it's used properly when it comes to our comparatively transit-friendly region.
Sensors and Sensibility
This blog has been a bit obsessed both about the benefits of dynamic highway tolling to control congestion, and about economic distortions caused by "free" parking. Apparently, our two pet obsessions have cross-bred, producing this San Fransisco Weekly article on dynamically-adjusted parking fees.
Here's the basic idea: new, inexpensive remote sensing technology is coming online that could...
...precisely monitor activity in a city's parking spaces, so a computer might figure out how much parking meters should charge so 15 percent of the spaces remain empty -- the optimum amount, research has shown, for making it convenient to shop by car.
In other words, if parking in a given neighborhood is looking tight, sensors would note the fact. Then, the parking meters would know to raise their prices a bit, until about 15% of the available spaces freed up. If there are lots of free spaces, then prices would come down a bit, letting people park for longer without racking up big fees. Ideally, the prices would self-adjust so that they're "just right" -- not so expensive that there are too many free spaces, and not so cheap that parking is difficult to find.
One jurisdiction is already committed to trying out the system:
[T]he idea of closely monitoring empty and full parking spaces and subtly adjusting meter prices ... was a principle untried anywhere in America -- until last month, when Redwood City approved a plan, developed by the city's downtown development director, Dan Zack, to do just that.
The article also notes that local shopkeepers--who tend to object to proposals to meter parking--often drop their opposition if the parking revenues are used locally to clean streets, improve sidewalks and lighting, and the like. That way, the money raised by parking fees never strays too far from the meter.
It could be easy enough to paint this sort of proposal as "anti-car." But it's really not. Yes, it would probably make parking more expensive; but it also could make parking more convenient and less time-consuming. That's a tradeoff that in many cases would make sense -- both for people who own cars, and for cities that are trying to control runaway congestion.
Are you wondering when--or if--the price of gasoline is going to ease back from its recent highs? You're not alone; that seems to be the question of the hour. But the truth is that there is absolutely no firm consensus on when, if, or how a substantial drop in crude prices might come about.
Yesterday's edition of The New York Times had an fascinating summary of the international oil situation, focusing on Saudi Arabia. The article discusses the competing estimates of various experts who, based on roughly the same set of evidence, have dramatically different views about how much oil the country can produce, and on what timetable.
Of course, virtually none of the Northwest's petroleum comes from the Middle East; most of it comes from Alaska and Alberta. But oil is what they call a "fungible commodity"--which means that it doesn't really matter where our oil actually comes from, since there's really just one big global oil market. At this point, the price of Alaskan crude moves bascially in lock-step with international trends, so in terms of the price we pay for oil, political turbulence in far-flung parts of the globe might as well be in our own backyard. That's the price we pay, apparently, for shackling our economy to a commodity of which we produce not a single drop.
August 18, 2005
Bicentennial of Lewis & Clark in the Northwest
200 years ago today, the Lewis and Clark expedition reached Cascadia, when they crossed the Continental Divide. It was Lewis' 31st birthday and he adopted a melancholy tone in his journal when he wrote, “I had as yet done but little, very little indeed.”
Here's a pithy timeline of the expedition's highlights -- it's fun to follow along.
(Though Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery were the first American citizens to reach the Pacific Northwest, Americans tend to forget that theirs was not the first transcontinental journey north of Mexico to reach the Pacific. That distinction belongs to Alexander Mackenzie, a Canadian, who reached the Pacific in 1793, a dozen years ahead of Lewis and Clark.)
Caribou in Court
The Selkirk caribou herd--one component of NEW's wildlife index--just became the center of a legal battle. A coalition of conservation groups are suing to ban snowmobiles from the caribou's winter range in the United States, arguing that snowmobiles are stressing and displacing the animals whose numbers are already perilously low. Read all about the lawsuit in a Seattle Times article.
The Selkirk herd's range dips from British Columbia into northern Idaho and northeastern Washington, making them the last herd of woodland caribou to visit the lower 48 states. The Selkirk caribou are often classified as "mountain caribou" an ecotype of woodland caribou, whose numbers are imperiled throughout much of its range, even in British Columbia's comparatively remote mountains. Much more about the species here.
August 17, 2005
Whales Say: Take the Bus
I'm a day late on this, but... new findings from Washington's Department of Ecology: cars, not industry, are becoming the biggest polluters of Puget Sound. That could mean that the future of iconic creatures like orcas, already highly contaminated, will depend on growth management that reduces driving.