I Wish I Were Far From the Madding Crowd

August 7, 2010

Ecological Intelligence

I recently began reading Ecological Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, who  is probably best known for his books on Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence.  He puts ecological intelligence in a different category that some of the other intelligences identified by Howard Gardner in that ecological intelligence has to be developed because the activities, and the impacts they have, are beyond our awareness and occur at such slow rates that there was no need for humans to develop that type of intelligence.  Climate change is one such example.

The subtitle is “How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything.”  He focuses on many of the same issues that William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle and Annie Leonard in The Story of Stuff do.  I found it delightfully surprising that a book by an author known for books on issues like emotional intelligence starts right off with a discussion of Life Cycle Assessment and industrial ecology.  (In fact, he refers to William McDonough’s “cradle to cradle” approach in several places.)

His discussion of why “green” isn’t always as green as it seems is useful for anyone wanting to make ecologically responsible purchases.

Goleman argues that one of the best ways to increase our ecological intelligence is through full disclosure of the impact of the products we buy, the notion of radical transparency.  He cites examples such as companies being required to disclose their financial workings as examples of how that disclosure helps investors make better decisions.

He weaves together stories about the effect of synthetic chemicals on our bodies, especially on our immune systems, and discusses how inflammation and oxidative stress could be at the root of all sorts of diseases (going well beyond cancer).  Body burden, toxicology, epigenetics, and green supply chains are all covered, even if only briefly.  He weaves together these topics in a very readable, understandable fashion.

Postscript: Just checked out his website for the first time.  His latest blog post is entitled “Leading sustainability” and discusses how consumers can use resources like GoodGuide.com to make more informed choices.  And I’m encouraged by the fact that he is working with folks like Peter Senge, a management guru.

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June 27, 2010

Tired of being a guinea pig?

Toxic chemicals are everywhere

There are ten of thousands of chemicals in your life, some of which can be harmful.

We are all exposed

Many toxic chemicals are found in the bodies of virtually every person on the planet, even those living in remote communities. In fact, the blood of nearly every American contains hundreds of chemicals, including those used in flame retardants, food packaging and even rocket fuel.

I Am Not a Guinea Pig is a new online campaign created by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) that provides tools and information Americans from all walks of life can use to press for fundamental reform of our nation’s toxic chemical law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  (EDF press release)

The “I Am Not a Guinea Pig” campaign is aimed at helping to ensure that the voices of millions of Americans who are concerned about and affected by exposures to untested and unsafe chemicals are heard as Congress begins the first serious effort to overhaul the 34-year-old TSCA.

The campaign will use a variety of social media, including a website, a Facebook page with daily updates, and a #NAGP Twitter hashtag.  It supports the efforts of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition to enact an effective chemical safety law.

The campaign’s goal is to engage Americans across the country to push for substantive reform of our toxic chemicals law.

To encourage support for a strong bill, EDF has joined with other members of Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a coalition that EDF helped found that includes over 200 health and environmental groups representing 11 million people across the nation. Key coalition partners in EDF’s campaign include:

The “I Am Not a Guinea Pig” website describes how we’re all exposed to toxic chemicals.  It includes a short video on “Chemicals in Your Home” and other videos on exposure to toxic chemicals.

The site notes that some groups are especially at risk

Teens and Toxic Chemicals in Products

Many teens don’t realize products they use every day may contain chemicals that can disrupt their still-developing biochemistry.

Kids & Chemicals: Developing Brains At Risk

Exposure to toxic chemicals in the womb, during infancy and childhood can result in lifelong problems with learning, behavior and development.

Health Professionals and Toxic Chemicals

Health care institutions regularly use a surprising number of highly toxic materials that can affect the health of doctors, nurses and other hospital staff.

March 21, 2010

You say you want an Industrial Revolution (Cradle to Cradle, part 3)

McDonough and Braungart.  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.

Remember the assignment McDonough and Braungart gave?  To design a system that creates enormous amounts of waste, lots of pollution, and burying or burning the results?  (Summarized in Nature doesn’t have a design problem. People do.” (Cradle to Cradle, part 2)

To explain how such a system evolved, they summarize the history of the Industrial Revolution, plus consequences of development of new technologies, increase in urbanization, and the design decisions that accumulated over time. Focus on selling the greatest volume of goods to the greatest number of people.  Shift from manual labor to efficient mechanization.  Mass production (for example, of automobiles).

Industry and natural “capital”

Western society had conflicting views of nature.  On the one hand, nature was a source of natural “capital” that seemed practically bottomless, a “mother earth” that was perpetually regenerative and could absorb all things and continue to grow.  On the other hand, it was also viewed a hostile and dangerous, as something to be conquered and tamed.

The Industrial Revolution was linear—making products and getting them to consumers without thinking about much else.  We now have a much different view of the world, one that recognizes that ecosystems are delicate, complex, and interconnected, and more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

The Industrial Revolution brought about many positive changes such as higher standards of living, increased life expectancy, improved medical care, and more widely available education.  However, fundamental flaws in the infrastructure design have resulted in devastating consequences.

The industrial system was designed on a linear, one-way “cradle-to-grave” model.  In such a system resources are extracted to make products which are sold, then eventually disposed of in a landfill or incinerator.  (Resources that are extracted include coal, oil, natural gas, iron, and so on.)

Buyers are called “consumers,” but McDonough and Braungart point out that consumers actually consume very little.  Most things are designed to be thrown away.

But where is “away”?  Of course, “away” does not really exist.  “Away” has gone away.

And we’re not very efficient at using what we do extract.  According to some studies, more than 90% of materials extracted to make durable goods in the U.S. become waste almost immediately.  (And only about 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering a product end up in the product.)

It just occurred to me that McDonough and Braungart’s use of the Titanic as a metaphor for our industrial infrastructure may been appropriate in another way.  Did the Titanic sink itself?  No, it hit an iceberg, 90% of which lies below water.  In other words, the waste and trash we see, the 10%, is just the tip of the wasteberg.

McDonough and Braungart note that “built-in obsolescence” is part of the design of many products.  In fact, reflecting on this, I realized that the selling point of some products is their disposability.  That is to say, our desire for convenience has been an important part in developing the linear cradle-to-grave model.  I believe this also drives our approach to many diseases.

Rather than deal with a problem at the source, we look for a silver bullet, or a magic pill of some kind, to get us out of situations.  In some ways, this brings to mind Aron’s discussion of the role of Highly Sensitive Persons in society.  She notes that immigrant societies like those of the U.S., Canada, and Australia tend to value sensitivity (awareness) less than more mature societies.

So we charge blindly forward, expecting to be able to figure out some creative way to get ourselves out of any situation we find ourselves in.  (This is reinforced by the TV shows we watch, where many problems are solved in 30 to 60 minutes.)

In the short term, it’s easier to deal with things after the fact.  Responding comes naturally to us.  To be fair, we need to be able to respond appropriately to all sorts of different situations.  We can’t prepare for every contingency.

But when we’ve gotten to the point where business as usual is slowly killing the planet we should realize that we need to rethink the way we make things.  For example, in a recently published review of the scientific literature on plastics and health risk [1] (press release), Prof. Rolf Halden points out that the 300 million tons of plastics  produced would fill a series of train cars encircling the globe. He notes: “We’re doomed to live with yesterday’s plastic pollution and we are exacerbating the situation with each day of unchanged behavior.”

There is also a growing consensus that plastics and their additives are not always the benign companions we once assumed them to be.  Bisphenol A and phthalates, used in the production of many plastics, are thought to present risks to human health.

In addition, for many years, scientists assumed that polymers like plastics would not be much of a problem in terms of chemical effects.  However, it was discovered that chemicals associated with the production of such polymers such as Teflon® are accumulating in people’s bodies.   So-called perfluorochemicals were listed in the CDC National Exposure Report for the first time.

Future post – More reasons why the old industrial infrastructure’s approach has gotten us where we are.

*********
Halden, R.  “Plastics and Health Risks,” Annual Review of Public Health, Vol. 31: 179-194 (March 2010) – Abstract | Full Text | PDF (183 KB) – full text costs $)

March 17, 2010

EPA and Children’s Environmental Health

Lax regulations on toxics put kids at risk, experts testify

(from CNN’s “Paging Dr. Gupta” blog)

The above post concerns a hearing held to hear about a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on EPA’s progress in protecting children from environmental threats.  It discusses the challenges EPA faces in protecting children’s health.  (To be fair, many people acknowledge that shortcomings in the Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, are responsible for EPA’s being unable to protect children and others from environmental pollutants.)

I’m not usually one to plug particular networks, but I thought the following mentioned in the Dr. Gupta blog might be of interest.

CNN editor’s note: Dr. Sanjay Gupta looks at the environment and health in an upcoming hourlong investigation, Toxic Towns USA, airing April 24 at 8 p.m. ET

Documents from the hearing

Children are exposed to many sources of potentially-harmful environmental pollutants

from the GAO Report Highlights

Selected report contents:

  • Background
  • EPA Has Not Focused Attention on Children’s Health in Agencywide Priorities, Strategies, and Rulemakings

Includes a figure showing the steps where children are considered in the EPA rulemaking progress.  The report does note that some offices within EPA more consistently incorporate considerations for children’s health in their work than others, but notes that at least one other federal agency does not even seem to do that.

  • In Recent Years, EPA Has Not Fully Utilized Its Office of Children’s Health and Other Child-Focused Resources
  • Opportunities Exist for EPA to Lead and Coordinate National Efforts to Protect Children from Environmental Threats
  • Recommendations for Executive Action
  • Matter for Congressional Consideration
  • Appendix II
    EPA Policy on Evaluating Health Risks to Children
  • Appendix III
    Executive Order 13045 and Amendments
  • Appendix IV
    EPA Regulations Subject to Executive Order 13045

From GAO’s summary: “In 1997, Executive Order 13045 (from the EPA website) mandated that agencies place a high priority on children’s risks and required that policies, programs, activities, and standards address those risks. In response, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created the Office of Children’s Health Protection and convened the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee….

“…While EPA leadership is key to national efforts to protect children from environmental threats, EPA’s efforts have been hampered by the expiration in 2005 of certain provisions in the executive order. For example, the Task Force on Children’s Environmental Health provided EPA with a forum for interagency leadership on important federal efforts, such as the National Children’s Study.”

GAO recommended that Congress consider the following:

Because EPA alone cannot address the complexities of the nation’s challenges in addressing environmental health risks for children, Congress may wish to consider re-establishing a government-wide task force on children’s environmental health risks, similar to the one previously established by Executive Order 13045….

Full Committee Hearing entitled, “Hearing on the Government Accountability Office’s Investigation of EPA’s Efforts to Protect Children’s Health”

The hearing mentioned in CNN’s blog – Held by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Wednesday, March 17, 2010, 10:30 AM EDT

[Webcast]

From the Committee’s Hearing page:

Chairman Barbara Boxer will convene the Full Committee for a hearing on the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) investigation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) children’s health program. The committee will also examine what can be done to strengthen protections for children.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) is also expected to give testimony on the federal government’s role in investigating children’s health issues and how that can be improved.

GAO documents

Environmental Health: High-level Strategy and Leadership Needed to Continue Progress toward Protecting Children from Environmental Threats
GAO-10-205,  January 28, 2010
Summary (HTML)   Highlights Page (PDF)   Full Report (PDF, 83 pages)

Environmental Health: Opportunities for Greater Focus, Direction, and Top-Level Commitment to Children’s Health at EPA

GAO-10-545T,  March 17, 2010
Summary (HTML)   Full Report (PDF, 12 pages)

EPA’s response

Peter Grevatt, the director of EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, stated in his written testimony:

EPA agrees that the GAO report reflects well the early history and progress of the Agency’s children’s health protection efforts. The report accurately portrays the Agency’s challenges in addressing children’s  environmental health, and sets forth sound recommendations on steps that could be taken to better incorporate protection of children’s health as an integral part of EPA’s everyday business.

Grevatt also noted that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson had designated the protection of children’s health as one of her top priorities.  He then described how EPA would implement its strategy to protect children’s health.

EPA’s strategy on children’s health (starts on p.4 of the testimony—specific components are listed under each item in the testimony)

  1. EPA will use the best science to ensure that regulations provide for protection of children’s environmental health by actively addressing the potential for unique childhood vulnerability and exposure. Our goal is to reduce negative environmental health impacts on children through rulemaking, policy, enforcement and research that focus on prenatal and childhood vulnerabilities.
  2. Protecting children through safe chemicals management.
  3. Coordinate national and international community based programs to eliminate threats to children’s health while measuring and communicating our progress.

Children’s health protection at EPA

Office of Children’s Health Protection website

Basic information about the Office of Children’s Health Protection

America’s Children and the Environment

(more…)

February 24, 2010

Back in the real world: Human exposure to environmental chemicals

Another type of exposure besides exposure to 24/7 connectedness that is probably affecting kids is exposure to industrial chemicals.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released its fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. (Fact Sheet / Executive Summary – 874 KB / Full report – 18 MB)

CDC has measured 212 chemicals in people’s blood or urine—75 of which have never before been measured in the U.S. population. The new chemicals include acrylamide, arsenic, environmental phenols, including bisphenol A (BPA) and triclosan, and perchlorate.  BPA was found in the urine of nearly all the people tested, a finding that indicates widespread exposure in the U.S. population.  Mercury, a known neurotoxin, was found in most of the study participants.

CDC notes:

Biomonitoring measurements are the most health-relevant assessments of exposure because they measure the amount of the chemical that actually gets into people from all environmental sources (e.g., air, soil, water, dust, or food) combined. With a few exceptions, it is the concentration of the chemical in people that provides the best exposure information to evaluate the potential for adverse health effects.

This is not a new issue.  Several years ago the Environmental Working Group released a report, Body Burden: The Pollution in Newborns, which measured industrial chemicals, pollutants, and pesticides in the umbilical cord blood of newborns.

287 chemicals were detected in umbilical cord blood, of which 180 cause cancer in humans or animals, 217 are toxic to the brain and nervous system, and 208 cause birth defects or abnormal development in animal tests.  The report notes that a number of human health problems are on the rise.  Fetal and childhood exposure can lead to childhood diseases or to diseases which don’t fully appear until adulthood.

So what can be done about this?

EWG has a blog on the Kid-Safe Chemical Act and the Environmental Defense Fund‘s Richard Denison has a blog on chemicals and nanomaterials.   EDF is also one of many organizations that has formed the “Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families” coalition, which is pushing for reforming the way the manufacture of industrial chemicals is regulated in the United States.  One of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s main tools for doing that is a relatively unknown law called the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  The Safer Chemicals coalition presents a health case for strengthening TSCA.  (TSCA has actually been in the news quite a bit lately, so you might have heard about it.)

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