miércoles, 30 de mayo de 2012

Is time running ut to save Oceans? Read in eMagazine

The World’s Waters Are Becoming Corrosive to Critical Marine Life. Is Time Running Out to Save our Oceans? 

By E editor, Brita Belli
Single copies of E’s May/June 2012 issue are available for $5 postpaid from: E Magazine, P.O. Box 469111, Escondido, CA 92046. Subscriptions are $19.95 per year, available at the same address.

The oceans do a lot of the Earth’s dirty work. On a given day, they will absorb 22 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), a third of the global output. In doing so they help to keep climate change in check, but they also pay a heavy toll as a result.

Increasing levels of carbon in the ocean are making the water more acidic, and that’s beginning to have an impact on shellfish, corals and some of the tiniest shell-making marine organisms that are essential to the ocean food web. The June 2012 issue of E – The Environmental Magazine (now posted at www.emagazine.com) takes a closer look at the phenomenon of “ocean acidification,” the process by which levels of CO2 are rising, changing the chemistry of the ocean, and the ways this is impacting sea creatures on which mankind depends.

Shellfish farmers in Washington and Oregon were some of the first to sound the alarm about ocean acidification. In 2006, hatchery-produced oyster larvae began to die off, despite their controlled and monitored environments. The two largest oyster hatcheries -- which supply seedling to the majority of West Coast oyster farmers -- lost between 60% and 80% of their larvae. Through ocean monitoring, the farmers discovered that the pH had fallen enough to make the water too corrosive for the oysters to form shells.
Once the problem was identified, shellfish farmers were able to take precautions -- such as waiting to fill tanks following a north wind when upwelling causes corrosive water to rise to the surface. But in the open ocean, there are no quick fixes for ocean acidification.

“A lot of things we like to eat have these calcium carbonate shells and they’re very sensitive to acidification,” says Richard Feely, Ph.D., a senior scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and its Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL). “Just a small drop in pH can cause the shells to begin to dissolve. It turns out that for many of these species, the larval and juvenile stages are much more sensitive than the adults. And we’re finding that they can die off quite rapidly even with the kinds of changes that we’re seeing right now.”

One of the most serious threats posed by ocean acidification is to corals -- marine animals that need carbonate ions to form their skeletons. During ocean acidification, CO2 sinks into the water and releases hydrogen ions which combine with carbonate ions, making them unavailable to the shell- and exoskeleton-making creatures that need them.

“There have been a lot of studies showing that under ocean acidification scenarios corals and other organisms on the reef calcify at a slower rate,” says Davey Kline, Ph.D., a coral reef ecology expert at the University of Queensland in Australia. “Even with just a little less growth, the corals can be tipped into these situations where they’re getting eroded faster than they can grow and the reefs start to dissolve.”

Coral reefs are already at risk from pollution, development, overfishing and warming waters as a result of global warming. Ocean acidification may be the final stressor that pushes them into extinction. The most recent report on reef health -- Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008 -- found that 19% of coral reefs were already lost, 15% were in a critical state with loss possible within a decade or two, and 20% could be lost in 20 to 40 years. “If we continue on the trajectory that we’re currently at,” says Kline, referring to unchecked global emissions, “we will lose reefs as we know them.”

The impacts of a world without reefs would be profound. The estimated net global value of reefs is $29.8 billion per year, and reefs provide essential work in protecting shorelines from storm damage, providing a home to one million species and offering new sources of medicine to treat everything from cancer to arthritis.
There are certainly local solutions, including designating marine protected areas to at least minimize the stresses on coral reefs in light of global warming and ocean acidification. But any major solution to keeping ocean acidification from further threatening our oceans and its inhabitants needs to involve a global agreement for keeping emissions in check -- something that, despite the warning signs, seems oceans away.

 also publishes EarthTalk, a nationally syndicated environmental Q&A column distributed to 1,850 newspapers, magazines and websites throughout the U.S. and Canada. Kidsfreesouls.com is an online newspaper that cover the Earth Talk syndicated column.

On Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act - US

Dear EarthTalk: I understand there is an effort underway to allow all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats and other motorized vehicles into wilderness areas, which would overturn a long-standing ban. What’s behind this? - Harry Schilling, Tempe, AZ

Photo Credit: Comstock

A key element of the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act now making its way through Congress would allow motorized vehicles and equipment into wilderness areas, undermine 1964’s Wilderness Act which expressly bans motor vehicles on these last wild vestiges of untrammeled American land.

A new bill making its way through Congress, the Recreational Fishing and Hunting Heritage and Opportunities Act (H.R. 2834), aims to make federally managed public lands across millions of acres of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management property more accessible to hunters and anglers. And a key element of the bill calls for allowing motorized vehicles and equipment—as long as they are used for hunting or fishing—into these areas. Leading green groups are outraged because this would undermine 1964’s Wilderness Act which expressly bans motor vehicles on these last wild vestiges of untrammeled American land.

According to the non-profit Wilderness Society, the motorized vehicles provision “would result in the destruction of the very wilderness values that millions of American hunters and anglers cherish.”

“The practical effect could be to open all designated wilderness areas to all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, motorbikes, motorboats, chainsaws and other motorized vehicles and equipment…” warns Wilderness Society president William Meadows in a letter to Congress. He adds that buildings, towers and temporary roads could even be built in currently pristine stretches of wilderness if the proposed bill becomes law.

But what’s most troubling to Meadows and others is language in the bill saying that “any requirements imposed by [the Wilderness Act] shall be implemented only insofar as they facilitate or enhance the original primary purpose or purposes for which the federal public lands or land unit was established and do not materially interfere with or hinder such purpose or purposes.” Meadows fears this could be construed to allow road building, timber cutting, mining, oil and gas drilling and other development in our remaining wilderness areas.

Another beef environmentalists have with the bill is that it would exempt decisions made or actions taken with regard to hunting and fishing on federal lands from federal environmental review and public disclosure regulations established under 1969’s National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Wilderness Society reports that this part of H.R. 2834 would keep the public and concerned parties out of decisions to compromise the integrity of wilderness but also other types of protected lands.

First introduced in the house last September by Michigan Republican Dan Benishek (with 45 bi-partisan co-sponsors), H.R. 2834 made it through the House Natural Resources Committee within three months and is poised for a full House vote later this spring. If it passes there, the Senate will take up a companion version, S. 2066, sponsored by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. Depending on how it plays out, the bill could be on the President’s desk by the summer.
“Recreational fishing and hunting are important and vital recreational activities on our federal public lands,” concludes the Wilderness Society, “but the anti-Wilderness provisions of H.R. 2834 should not be allowed to become law.”

CONTACTS: H.R. 2834, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2834; Wilderness Society, www.wilderness.org.

In Spanish:

Querido DiálogoEcológico: Entiendo que se está tratando de permitir la entrada de vehículos tipo todo terreno,  motonieves, motos, motonaves y otros vehículos motorizados en áreas vírgenes, lo que revocaría una prohibición antigua. ¿Qué está detrás de esto?  - Harry Schilling, Tempe, AZ

Un nuevo proyecto de ley que avanza por el Congreso, la Ley de Oportunidades de Herencia  de Pesca y Caza Recreacionales (H. 2834), busca hacer tierras públicas federalmente manejadas que comprenden millones de acres de propiedad del Servicio Forestal y la Oficina de Administración de Tierras más accesibles a cazadores y pescadores. Y un elemento clave del proyecto estipula permitir vehículos motorizados y equipos—siempre que sean utilizados para la caza o la pesca—en estas áreas. Los grupos ecologistas más prominentes están indignados porque esto socavaría la Ley de Zonas Vírgenes de 1964 que prohíbe expresamente automóviles en estos últimos vestigios salvajes de superficie norteamericana.
Según la Wilderness Society, un grupo no comercial, la provisión sobre vehículos motorizados "tendría como resultado precisamente la destrucción del valor de las áreas virginales que millones de cazadores y pescadores norteamericanos estiman altamente".

"El efecto real podría ser abrir todas los áreas designadas como vírgenes a vehículos de todo terreno, a motonieves, motos, motonaves, a las sierras de cadena y otros vehículos y equipos motorizados…" advierte el presidente de la Wilderness Society William Meadows en una carta al Congreso. Agrega que edificios, torres y caminos provisionales podrían ser construidos aún en tramos actualmente prístinos de las zonas vírgenes si el proyecto se hace ley.

Pero lo que preocupa más a Meadows y otros son el idioma del proyecto que dice que "cualquier requisito impuesto por [la Ley de Tierras Vírgenes] será aplicado sólo en la medida en que facilite o aumente el propósito o los propósitos primarios originales por los cuales se establecieron las tierras públicas federales o la unidad de tierra y no interfiere sustancialmente con o dificulta tal propósito o propósitos". Meadows teme que esto pueda ser interpretado como para permitir construcción de caminos, forestación, minería, explotación petrolífera y de gas y otro desarrollo en nuestras restantes áreas vírgenes.

Otro problema que tienen los ecologistas con este proyecto es que eximiría decisiones hechas o acciones tomados con respecto a la caza y la pesca en tierras federales de examen ambiental federal y publicación de reglamentos públicos establecidos bajo la Ley de Política Ambiental Nacional (NEPA) de 1969. La Wilderness Society informa que esta parte de H. 2834 mantendrían al público y otras partes concernidas fuera de las decisiones pertinentes, comprometiendo así no solamente la integridad de las áreas vírgenes sino también otros tipos de tierras protegidas.

Primero introducido en la Cámara de Diputados el mes de septiembre pasado por el Republicano de Michigan Dan Benishek (con 45 copatrocinadores bipartitos), H. 2834 pasó el Comité de Recursos Naturales de la cámara dentro de tres meses y está ahora listo para un voto pleno de la Cámara esta primavera. Si pasa entonces, el Senado tomará una versión gemela, S. 2066, patrocinada por el Republicano de Alaska Lisa Murkowski y el Demócrata de Virginia Occidental Joe Manchin. Según cómo resulte esto, el proyecto podría estar en el escritorio del Presidente para el verano.

"La pesca y la caza recreativas son actividades importantes y esenciales en nuestras tierras públicas federales," concluye la Wilderness Society, "pero las provisiones antivirginales del proyecto H. 2834 no deben ser permitidas que se hagan ley".

CONTACTOS: H.R. 2834, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr2834; Wilderness Society, www.wilderness.org

How do green groups feel about the new 2012 Farm Bill draft

Dear EarthTalk: How do green groups feel about the new 2012 Farm Bill draft recently released by the Senate? - Roger Wheeler, Miami, FL

Photo Credit: Stockbyte

Some green groups, such as the Environmental Working Group, applaud parts of the 2012 Farm Bill that support healthy diets, organic farmers and links between local growers and consumers. But they are critical of provisions they say only continue subsidies for highly profitable farms while ignoring needed protections for wetlands, grasslands and soil health.

Like so much of the legislation coming out of Washington, D.C., green groups are mixed on the new Farm Bill now making its way toward a floor vote. No doubt there are some conservation bright spots in the bill, but the question is: Are there enough and do they go far enough?

The non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) doesn’t think so.“Unfortunately, the bill ... will do more harm than good,” says Craig Cox, an agriculture and natural resources expert at EWG. “It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses.” Cox is critical of the new bill for essentially replacing one subsidy to large successful farms (those which need it least) with another: “Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits.” He calls replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program “a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.”

On the conservation side, Cox is dismayed that the draft bill fails to address “the impact of fence-row to fence-row agricultural production, which is putting unprecedented pressure on our land, water and wildlife.” EWG would like to see the bill include language forcing farmers to protect critical wetlands and grasslands, not to mention soil health in general, in exchange for getting the insurance subsidies. “In combination, a new entitlement program, unlimited secret insurance subsidies, cuts to conservation programs and high commodity prices will create powerful incentives to plow up fragile wetlands and grasslands and erase many of the environmental gains made by agriculture in recent years,” says Cox.

On the plus side, Cox applauds provisions in the bill that create and expand programs supporting healthy diets and organic farmers, as well as those that seek to expand links between local farmers and consumers. “We also support efforts to reform conservation programs to get more conservation bang for the buck,” he concludes, adding that EWG hopes to work with legislators on strengthening the bill’s conservation and nutrition provisions, and to place sensible limits on subsidies for highly-profitable farms.

Another respected non-profit, American Farmland Trust (AFT), is more bullish overall on the Senate’s draft of the bill. The group likes the fact that funding for conservation programs is maintained at all, given the sour economic climate and resistance to put funds into non-emergency programs. AFT also praises the bill for its commitment to support farm and ranch land protection through a new permanent Agricultural Land Easement option which will help protect working lands and keep them in agricultural use.

“Our nation has a critical need to protect farm and ranch land,” says AFT president Jon Scholl, adding that the U.S. lost farm and ranch acreage equal to the size of Indiana over the last 30 years. “Permanent conservation easements protect agricultural land from development, safeguard local agricultural economies and help farmers and ranchers transition their land to the next generation.”

A vote on the final version of the bill could come as early as this summer.

CONTACTS: EWG, www.ewg.org, AFT, www.farmland.org.

In Spanish:

Querido DiálogoEcológico: ¿Qué opinan los grupos verdes acerca del nuevo proyecto de Ley Agrícola de 2012 recientemente dado a conocer por el Senado? - Roger Wheeler, Miami, FL

Some green groups, such as the Environmental Working Group, applaud parts of the 2012 Farm Bill that support healthy diets, organic farmers and links between local growers and consumers. But they are critical of provisions they say only continue subsidies for highly profitable farms while ignoring needed protections for wetlands, grasslands and soil health.

Como tanta legislación que viene saliendo de Washington, D.C., los grupos verdes están divididos con respecto al nuevo Proyecto de Ley Agrícola ahora avanzando hacia un voto en el congreso. Hay sin duda algunos lugares que dan esperanza en el proyecto, pero la cuestión es, ¿Son suficientes y van lo suficientemente lejos?

La organización sin fines lucrativos Environmental Working Group (EWG) cree que no. "Desafortunadamente, el proyecto... hará más daño que bien," dice Craig Cox, un experto en agricultura y recursos naturales con el EWG. "Sacrifica innecesariamente programas de conservación y ayuda alimentaria para financiar subvenciones ilimitadas de seguros y nuevos derechos para negocios agrícolas sumamente rentables". Cox es crítico del nuevo proyecto porque reemplaza en esencia una subvención a granjas exitosas grandes (las que tienen menos necesidad) con otra: "En vez de sencillamente terminar el desacreditado programa de pagos directos, el Comité de Agricultura del Senado ha creado un nuevo programa caro de derechos que garantiza la mayor parte de los ingresos a negocios agrícolas que ya disfrutan de ganancias sustanciales". El llama reemplazar los pagos directos con un programa de garantía de ingresos "un juego cínico fraudulento que debería ser rechazado por el Congreso".

En materia de conservación, Cox está consternado que el proyecto de ley no cubre "el impacto de producción agrícola de valla a valla, que pone presión inaudita en nuestra tierra, agua y fauna". EWG querría ver al proyecto ley incluir lenguaje que forzara a los agricultores a proteger los humedales frágiles y pastizales, aparte de la salud de los suelos en general, a cambio de recibir las subvenciones de seguros. "En combinación, el nuevo programa de derechos, subvenciones secretas ilimitadas de seguros, reducciones a los programas de conservación y altos precios de materias primas crarán incentivos fuertes para arar los delicados humedales y pastizales y borrar así muchas de las victoria ecológicas logradas por la agricultura en años recientes," indica Cox.

Por el lado positivo, Cox aplaude provisiones en el proyecto que crean y expanden programas que apoyan dietas sanas y la agricultura orgánica, así como los que procuran expandir los lazos entre granjeros y consumidores locales. "También apoyamos los esfuerzos de reformar los programas de conservación para conseguir más beneficio de conservación por cada dólar," concluye, agregando que EWG espera trabajar con legisladores para reforzar las provisiones de conservación y nutrición del proyecto, y para colocar límites sensatos a subvenciones para granjas sumamente gananciosas.

Otra respetada organización sin fines lucrativos, American Farmland Trust (AFT), es más optimista, en general, con respecto al proyecto frente al Senado. El grupo aprecia el hecho que la financiación de programas de conservación se mantiene en absoluto, dado el clima adverso económico que atravesamos y la resistencia a aprobar fondos para programas no urgentes. AFT también alaba el proyecto por su compromiso de apoyar las tierras de cultivo y de ganadería a través de una nueva opción de Servidumbre de Tierra Agrícola que ayudará a proteger las tierras cultivadas manteniéndolas en uso agrícola.

"Nuestra nación tiene una necesidad crítica de proteger tierras agrícolas y de ganadería," dice el presidente de AFT Jon Scholl, agregando que EEUU perdió una superficie equivalente al tamaño de Indiana en los últimos 30 años. "Servidumbres permanentes de conservación protegen la tierra contra el desarrollo, salvaguardan las economías agrícolas locales y ayudan a granjeros y rancheros a hacer la transición de sus tierras a la próxima generación".

Un voto sobre la versión final de la cuenta podría tener lugar tan temprano como este verano.
CONTACTOS: EWG, www.ewg.org, AFT, www.farmland.org.

Why is Greenpeace upset with some leading tech companies for so-called “dirty cloud computing?”

Dear EarthTalk: Why is Greenpeace upset with some leading tech companies for so-called “dirty cloud computing?” Can you explain? - Jeremy Wilkins, Waco, TX

Photo Credit: Wichary, Flickr

Greenpeace wants companies like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft to make smarter, cleaner energy choices now that "cloud computing" services have ratcheted up power consumption considerably.

Leading tech companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are now offering unprecedented amounts of data storage and access to “apps” on huge Internet-connected servers, saving consumers and businesses the hassle of installing and running programs and storing information on their own local computers.
This emerging trend, dubbed “cloud computing,” means that these providers have had to scale up their power consumption considerably, as they are increasingly responsible for providing more and more of the computing horsepower required by the world’s two billion Internet users. No doubt, sharing such resources on centralized servers is more efficient than every individual and business running their own versions separately. In fact, the research firm Verdantix estimates that companies off-loading data and services to cloud servers could save $12 billion off their energy bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 million metric tons within the next decade. But for the greenhouse gas savings to be realized, the companies offering cloud computing services need to make the right energy choices.

Greenpeace has been tracking sustainability among tech companies for over a decade, and recently released a report, “How Green is Your Cloud?” assessing the green footprint of the move to cloud computing. According to the analysis, some of the major players (Google, Facebook and Yahoo) have gone to great lengths to ensure that significant amounts of the power they need come from clean, green sources like wind and solar. But Greenpeace chastises others (Apple, Amazon and Microsoft) for relying on so-called “dirtier” sources of power, such as coal and nuclear, to run their huge data centers.

“When people around the world share their music or photos on the cloud, they want to know that the cloud is powered by clean, safe energy,” says Gary Cook, a Senior Policy Analyst with Greenpeace. “Yet highly innovative and profitable companies like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft are building data centers powered by coal and acting like their customers won’t know or won't care. They’re wrong.”

Greenpeace’s report evaluates 14 major tech firms and the electricity supply chains in use across more than 80 different data centers that power cloud-based services. Some of the largest data centers are in buildings so big they are visible from space and use as much power as 250,000 European homes. If the cloud were its own country, says Greenpeace, it would rank 5th in the world in electricity consumption.

Companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook are beginning to lead the sector down a clean energy pathway through innovations in energy efficiency, prioritizing renewable energy access when siting their data centers, and demanding better energy options from utilities and government decision-makers,” reports Greenpeace. But unfortunately the majority of the industry is not marching in step. As such, Greenpeace is calling on all tech companies with cloud services to develop siting policies based on access to clean energy sources, invest in or directly purchase renewable energy, be transparent about their energy usage, share innovative solutions so the sector as a whole can improve, and demand that governments and utilities increase the percentage of clean, green power available on the grid.

CONTACTS: Verdantix, www.verdantix.com; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org

Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012 - Agenda this time

Dear EarthTalk: I understand there is to be another Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in June 2012, 20 years since the last one was held in the same city. What’s on the agenda this time? - Janet Grayson, Albuquerque, NM

Credit: Artyom Sharbatyan

Rio+20 participants hope this event, due to take place June 20-22, 2012, will be remembered as an historic occasion when nations of the world aligned behind the cause of staving off global environmental catastrophe, but several earlier events have produced very little and, as such, expectations remain low.

According to the United Nations, the so-called “Rio+20 Conference”—officially the UN Conference on Sustainable Development—is a new attempt in a new millennium to “lay the foundations of a world of prosperity, peace and sustainability.” The event will take place June 20-22, the 20th anniversary of 1992’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD)—the “Rio Earth Summit”—and the 10th anniversary of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg.
The main agenda items will be reviewing the progress and difficulties associated with moving towards sustainability, assessing responses to the newly emerging challenges faced by our societies, and strengthening political commitments to sustainable development. Underlying themes include finding ways to leverage the green economy to foster sustainable development and poverty eradication, and setting up an effective institutional framework for future global sustainable development initiatives. Delegates from the 200+ nations and thousands of private and nonprofit sector attendees will focus on sustainable cities, decent jobs, food security and sustainable agriculture, energy, oceans, and disaster readiness. 

To the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington, DC-based think tank devoted to sustainability issues, Rio+20 is important as it forces the world’s nations to “review progress on and reaffirm a global commitment to the policies designed to foster economic growth that is both inclusive and respects the planet’s limited carrying capacity.” WRI adds that amid a global recession, a widening gap between rich and poor and heightened competition for energy, food and other natural resources, the conference couldn’t be timelier but “unfortunately, no clear vision for Rio+20 has emerged, and expectations...remain low.”

But conference participants are busy preparing. The Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (SFSF), a network of non-governmental participants, is busy developing the Global Transition 2012 Initiative, which will lay out specific recommendations culled from organizations and thought leaders around the world.

“A goal of the initiative is to achieve an outcome from Rio+20 that catalyses a ‘Global Transition’ to an economy that maximizes well-being, operates within environmental limits and is capable of coping and adapting to global environmental change,” reports the SFSF. “The Global Transition 2012 initiative will propose focused and accessible goals, targets and policy interventions that will chart a clear route towards the greening of the global economy, and the achievement of social and economic justice.”

Rio+20 participants hope this event will be remembered as an historic occasion when nations of the world aligned behind the cause of staving off global environmental catastrophe. But the more likely outcome is a few non-binding agreements that will soon be forgotten by constituents, the media and even many of the participating countries. Not since 1987’s Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals have nations of the world been able to come together in a significant way to address specific environmental ills. And without any binding agreements already on the table, Rio+20 doesn’t look to dazzle either.

CONTACTS: UNCSD, www.uncsd2012.org; SFSF, www.stakeholderforum.org; WRI, www.wri.org.

Green-friendly, non-toxic air fresheners..

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that many air fresheners contain toxic chemicals. Are there any green-friendly, non-toxic air fresheners out there, or how can I make my own?  - Jenny Rae, Bolton, MA
Credit: iStock/Thinkstock

It is true that some air fresheners on the market today make use of harsh chemicals to eliminate or overpower odors. “Many air fresheners contain nerve-deadening chemicals that coat your nasal passages and temporarily block your sense of smell,” reports National Geographic’s The Green Guide. Some of the most offensive ingredients—volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene and formaldehyde—can cause headaches and nausea and aggravate asthma, and have been linked to neurological damage and cancer.

Perhaps even more worrisome, though, are dispersants known as phthalates that cause hormonal and reproductive issues, birth defects and developmental disorders. A 2007 review by the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 12 out of 14 widely available air fresheners contained phthalates. Some of the air fresheners that tested positive for phthalates were labeled as “all-natural” or “unscented.” Two of the worst offenders analyzed by NRDC were sold at Walgreens stores under that company’s own generic label. As a result, Walgreens removed the products from its shelves, and the manufacturer which made them reformulated their product line without phthalates.

Given such problems with air fresheners, many of us are looking for non-toxic alternatives. Of course, first and foremost would be opening a window or two, as nothing beats good old fresh air for shooing away offensive odors. But sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate for leaving windows and doors open. The websitegreenhome.com suggests filling a small spray bottle with a mixture of four teaspoons baking soda and four cups of water and then spraying the solution in a fine mist to neutralizer odors. Similarly, The Green Guide suggests mixing a few drops of an organic essential oil (lemon, orange and lavender are popular choices) with distilled or purified water and spraying with a mister.

Another all-natural way to get rid of nasty smells is by wrapping cloves and cinnamon in cheesecloth and boiling them in water. Yet another consists of leaving herbal bouquets standing in open dishes where the fragrance can dissipate throughout a room. And don't underestimate the air-cleansing power of houseplants, which can improve indoor air quality by filtering toxins out of the air. Mother Nature Network reports that aloe vera plants can filter benzene and formaldehyde out of the air, that spider plants are known for their ability to take xylene and carbon monoxide out of the indoor environment, and that gerber daisies excel at removing the trichloroethylene that may come home with your dry cleaning.

Greenhome.com also sells a variety of non-toxic air fresheners for those less inclined to making their own. EcoDiscoveries AirZyme makes use of natural enzymes to eliminate smoke, pet or other smells with a few sprays. Other options include The Natural’s Air Freshener & Deodorizer and Tru Melange’s Beeswax and Soy candles. 

CONTACTSThe Green Guide, http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/green-guide; Greenhome.com,www.greenhome.com; Mother Nature Network, www.mnn.com.

How is it that dams actually hurt rivers?

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that dams actually hurt rivers? -- Missy Davenport, Boulder, CO

Credit: iStockPhoto/Thinkstock

Dams have a deleterious affect on water quality and on fish habitat and passage. Indeed, wild salmon numbers in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River basin are down some 85 percent since the big dams went in there a half century ago.  Pictured: the world famous Hoover dam, built in 1936.

Dams are a symbol of human ingenuity and engineering prowess—controlling the flow of a wild rushing river is no small feat. But in this day and age of environmental awareness, more and more people are questioning whether generating a little hydroelectric power is worth destroying riparian ecosystems from their headwaters in the mountains to their mouths at the ocean and beyond.

According to the non-profit American Rivers, over 1,000 dams across the U.S. have been removed to date. And the biggest dam removal project in history in now well underway in Olympic National Park in Washington State where two century-old dams along the Elwha River are coming out. But why go to all the trouble and expense of removing dams, especially if they contribute much-needed renewable, pollution-free electricity to our power grids?

The decision usually comes down to a cost/benefit analysis taking into account how much power a given dam generates and how much harm its existence is doing to its host river’s environment. Removing the dams on the Elwha River was a no-brainer, given that they produced very little usable electricity and blocked fish passage on one of the region’s premiere salmon rivers. Other cases aren’t so clear cut.

According to the Hydropower Reform Coalition (HRC), a consortium of 150 groups concerned about the impact of dams, degraded water quality is one of the chief concerns. Organic materials from within and outside the river that would normally wash downstream get built up behind dams and start to consume a large amount of oxygen as they decompose. In some cases this triggers algae blooms which, in turn, create oxygen-starved “dead zones” incapable of supporting river life of any kind. Also, water temperatures in dam reservoirs can differ greatly between the surface and depths, further complicating survival for marine life evolved to handle natural temperature cycling. And when dam operators release oxygen-deprived water with unnatural temperatures into the river below, they harm downstream environments as well.

Dammed rivers also lack the natural transport of sediment crucial to maintaining healthy organic riparian channels. Rocks, wood, sand and other natural materials build up at the mouth of the reservoir instead of dispersing through the river’s meandering channel. “Downstream of a dam, the river is starved of its structural materials and cannot provide habitat,” reports HRC.

Fish passage is also a concern. “Most dams don’t simply draw a line in the water; they eliminate habitat in their reservoirs and in the river below,” says HRC. Migratory fish like salmon, which are born upstream and may or may not survive their downstream trip around, over or through a dam, stand an even poorer chance of completing the round trip to spawn. Indeed, wild salmon numbers in the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River basin are down some 85 percent since the big dams went in there a half century ago.

While the U.S. government has resisted taking down any major hydroelectric dam along the Columbia system, political pressure is mounting. No doubt all concerned parties will be paying close attention to the ecosystem and salmon recovery on the Elwha as it unfolds over the next few decades.

CONTACTS: American Rivers, www.americanrivers.org; HRC, www.hydroreform.org.