Posts in 'Protecting our Health'

Hope

A successful fight for safer school buses offers hope for global warming action

“Hope is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. In her poem, hope flutters into—and out of—our hearts, it clings to its perch through the heaviest storms, and it asks for nothing in exchange, not a crumb. Hope has been very much on my mind this summer. Every single day we learn more about the deteriorating state of our planet—the dying ocean, the melting glaciers, the disruptive, unusually severe weather patterns. Then we ponder the sorry state of our political process with respect to climate change. Where’s the hope?

How neighborhood action spurred national change.

My weary friends say the battle against climate change is overwhelming. The issues are too large. The battle must be global in scale and the solution has to be as large as the problem. But it is doubtful we can institutionalize international change fast enough to avert disaster. Time is not on our side.

So we retreat to our homes, and think of tending only our gardens and raising our children. It is autumn, and for most of us, no matter how old we are, an internal rhythm kicks in: back to school! Back to serious matters! We buy the crayons and notebooks and lunch boxes for our little ones, and send them out the door to board those bright yellow buses, just as we did when we were in our brand new fall oxfords. We send our children out into that very large world—the one from which we want to retreat.

Children on the school busFresh faces on the first day of school.

About a decade ago, we began to learn that those school buses we waved our children off in posed an unexpected environmental risk. Despite being the safest way to transport children to and from school, buses produced diesel fumes that can cause respiratory ailments, exacerbating asthma, and damaging lung tissue. The problems were aggravated every time the buses stopped to open their doors to pick up more passengers; more particulate pollution streamed in and entered the children’s lungs, bloodstreams and brains. Because children’s lungs are not fully developed, they are especially vulnerable. To make matters worse, idling at pickup time at the school doors added to the pollution both inside and outside the bus.

Buses by the Numbers

When the information surfaced, it led to aggressive action across the country. New York City, Washington state, New Jersey and California instituted mandatory emissions controls programs, setting aside funds to either retire old buses quickly, or retrofit them to filter the pollution.

In states such as Texas, where EDF went to work on this issue, the programs were voluntary, but millions in funds have been made available through the legislature. EDF’s efforts, primarily in Houston, generated a great deal of local and national media attention, which helped educate other communities about the problem. EDF also created this educational video at www.cleanbuses.org/texas to encourage grass roots action in other cities:

Along with the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association threw its weight behind the issue; so did many PTA organizations. Things have begun to change. Progress is slow, and sometimes frustrating. Some fleet managers are more concerned with bus routes and schedules; some legislatures are unable to find funds to buy new buses or retrofit old ones. The retrofit costs ranging from $1,000 to $8,000 are a small price to pay for our children, and the sort of thing many companies could underwrite in an “Adopt a Bus” program.

Startling difference in tailpipe emissions from buses with and without filters. Learn more

Incredibly, some people fail to give a child’s lungs and heart and brains top priority. But over and over, we have seen that things happen most rapidly and effectively when the people who do care—the parents—mobilize to demand change, and champion it through the planning and implementation stages. EPA reports that across the nation, bus retrofit programs are growing and getting better. Ten years later, district by district, across the country, our children are breathing cleaner air as they ride to school. And fortunately, even in places where nothing is done, the old, dirty buses will eventually “age out”, and be replaced with new buses designed to run more efficiently and cleanly.

Which gets us to that matter of hope. Of course there are times when hope fails us. We abandon it, or it abandons us. But the only alternative to hope is despair, and no one thrives with a heavy heart. To be human is to hope. The thing with feathers is small, but it is also nimble. Sometimes, when the big picture is overwhelming, it helps to zoom in tighter. Look at the ways in which we have made large changes for the better in our own small neighborhoods. Look at the successes we have had—and be reminded that we can change things for the better. The fight against global warming is not like the fight against school bus pollution; the crisis is too pervasive, for any individual action to make much difference. We need significant legislative change. But it is up to us, as individuals, to rally around transformative efforts—for our own sakes, and for the sake of our children.

Sometimes, hope is the thing with a backpack—that small, cherished creature, innocent and expectant, we send out into the world’s hurly-burly. I have to believe that, one way or another, we will continue to change our ways for those children—a new generation whose own hearts are filling with hope as they pick up the fight. We are like those buses. We will age out—and we will, I hope, be replaced by our children, people who have cleaner energy on their minds. In the meantime, it helps to understand that hope is a gift, a blessing, a visitation, a grace. But it is also a choice.

Personal Nature

Get Involved! Cleaner buses are just one change of many we can make.

Join a powerful new I am Not a Guinea Pig campaign to strengthen toxic chemical standards.

Toxic Ignorance is Not Bliss

Why I’m Outraged About BPA and Other Chemicals, and What We Can Do

We are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals all day long. It would be next to impossible to avoid them; they lace our lives. We sleep on chemical fire retardants in the fabrics covering our mattresses. We wake and wash with chemical soaps, and slather chemical-rich moisturizers on our bodies, shampoos on our heads, cosmetics on our faces. We cuddle our babies in plush armchairs, upholstered in fabric that is treated with stain-resistant coatings. Our toddlers cut their teeth chewing plastic toys that contain chemicals to make them soft.

We live in a society that, if anything, seems too full of rules and regulations. But that means we can trust the products that come to market; they’ve been analyzed and researched and exposed to exhaustive, long-range testing, right?

Wrong. Most of the synthetic chemicals we live with—and some are so pervasive that they are now in the bodies of virtually all Americans—are under-tested and under-regulated. Those bottles, those non-stick pans, shampoos and lotions, those cleaning products—so much of the stuff of everyday life—may, in fact, be harmful to our health. All those times I nestled a warm bottle into my hungry child’s mouth, I may have been exposing him to toxic substances.

“Without agreeing to it...we have become the chemical industry’s guinea pigs.”

“Society needs to pay much more attention to this problem,” says Dr. Richard Denison, Senior Scientist at EDF. “We’ve been complacent about it.” Denison maintains an influential blog tracking the debate over chemical safety.

In 1976 Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Unfortunately, the 62,000 chemicals on the market at that time were given a free pass: no requirement they be tested or assessed for safety. Although the Environmental Protection Agency has garnered some information about chemicals through voluntary submissions by industry in a program that EDF helped start, limited testing has been required on a mere 200 chemicals over the past three decades. Worse, EPA has managed to restrict only five substances—and even that overstates the agency’s efficacy. The only group of chemicals entirely banned was PCBs, because Congress required it. Even Cal Dooley, the president of the American Chemistry Council, commented on EPA’s incapacity in this matter: “EPA cannot make a determination on whether or not a chemical is safe for its intended use.”

We should be worried about what amounts to a huge, uncontrolled human testing experiment. Without agreeing to it, without understanding it, without even knowing it, we have become the chemical industry’s guinea pigs. “We have a system that puts the burden of proof on the government to show that a chemical is harmful,” says Denison. “We need to flip this. The burden of proof should be on industry, to show that a chemical is safe.”

The chemical most in the headlines these days is bisphenol A (BPA). Among its many applications, BPA has been used in the linings of food cans, and because it makes plastic clear and nearly shatterproof, it has been used in baby bottles. Traces of BPA have been found in the bodies of 92% of Americans.

Bisphenol A has been getting attention as scientists have released reports showing that this compound–first identified as a “synthetic estrogen” in the 1930s–is an endocrine disrupter. It has been connected to increased breast cancer risk, altered brain and breast development, altered thyroid function, recurrent miscarriage and erectile dysfunction. While independent scientists and industry chemists continue to debate acceptable levels of leaching and toxicity, some states, manufacturers and retailers have taken it upon themselves to ban BPA from baby products. Even Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, no longer sells BPA baby products. While this is terrific, the federal government should ban BPA from all products. Babies always ignore labels telling them not to chew on the grown-up’s stuff.

BPA seemed like a good idea at the time. A plastic bottle meant your toddler wouldn’t crash to the floor holding glass in his hands. Lightweight plastic launched two year olds into the take-out habits of our dining culture: Those sweet fruit drinks, steadily leaking through the nipple, led to rampant tooth decay. Dentists began protectively coating children’s teeth with–you guessed it–plastic sealants containing BPA.

BPA is a telling example of the shortcomings of America’s regulatory processes. It was one of the chemicals that sailed past TSCA in 1976, and is now produced in amounts exceeding 6 billion pounds annually, even though its hormone-like properties have been known since at least the 1930s. And BPA is a harbinger of even greater trouble in the industry. Christopher Gavigan, executive director of Healthy Child Healthy World, says there are many other chemicals that raise similar concerns. To name a few: flame retardants (PDBEs), phthalates (used extensively to soften plastics) and organo-tin compounds, which harm aquatic life. Denison underscores the danger: all these synthetics are in widespread use, humans have been significantly exposed to them, and there is growing evidence of their toxicity.

“We have much better science today than we did thirty years ago,” says Denison. “We are gaining an understanding of our biological response to even small doses of chemicals. But we have old regulations—blind to the new science.”

As consumers, we find ourselves in a familiar and uncomfortable position: individual efforts to stay safe, versus inadequate information and weak government regulations. Indeed, it often seems that government protects industry better than people. Consumers can try to avoid BPA-laden canned food. We can be vigilant about not using anything that has known carcinogens in it. We can consult websites (like those listed above on the right) to get some of that information. But there are countless undisclosed chemicals in everything we use. We have no clue where the next toxin lurks. The burden of responsibility should not be on the consumers. Manufacturers must be held accountable for the safety of the products they make and sell.

We shouldn’t despair—but only because that won’t do any good. We should be outraged. We should make noise, lots and lots of noise. Demand reform of the laws governing toxic substances. Demand that the EPA have the power to restrict the use of dangerous chemicals. Demand more rigorous testing. Demand transparency: Ingredients that might be harmful to human health should be disclosed. But more to the point, products made with unsafe or untested chemicals should never reach the marketplace. Because that’s how they end up in our bodies, and in the bodies of our babies. When it isn’t clear that even the smallest exposures to certain chemicals are safe, regulators cannot continue with business as usual. You can take action right now—tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

Our social networks are buoyed by trust. Trust in the companies that make the things we buy. Trust in the stores we buy things from. Trust that our government makes laws to protect us. Trust that most people believe in doing no harm. But trust is earned, not assumed. And it has been broken. It is up to us to demand, more than anything else, the repair of trust between consumers, industry and government. Now more than ever, we need the retailers we have been trusting to take the lead on ensuring that we aren’t being poisoned by the things they are selling. Their combined market leverage will provoke greater cooperation from manufacturers, and pressure government agencies to require transparency and proof of safety.

There shouldn’t be anything to hide, should there? As with any relationship, all we’re looking for is good chemistry.

Take action! Tell Congress to strengthen standards for toxic chemicals.

Solutions that Work

Last spring, Walmart announced the creation of GreenWERCS, a tool to assess the chemical ingredients of household cleaners, personal care products and other chemical-based items on its shelves. With this new tool, Walmart can get information about hazardous waste potential, toxic substances such as carcinogens, or other chemicals of concern in the products it sells. EDF’s Michelle Harvey co-chaired the working group that spent 18 months developing the tool’s evaluation criteria. (Read more about this process and partnership between EDF and Walmart.)

One problem that EDF and Walmart had to confront was suppliers’ requirements to keep the formulations of their products confidential. Because under current chemical policies companies are not required to disclose which chemicals are used in many types of consumer products, neither Walmart nor the public know the chemical composition of such products. To identify potential chemicals of concern, Walmart needed 100% full disclosure of ingredients. The stopgap compromise that EDF helped develop to get Walmart over this hurdle requires the information be collected under confidentiality agreements by a third party for assessment. This lets the third party evaluate and inform Walmart as to whether there are chemicals of potential concern in a given product without disclosing the product’s formulation to Walmart.

The GreenWERCS results can be used by Walmart to initiate dialogue with product manufacturers on the chemical ingredients in their products and can be used to encourage safer substitutes. And best of all, the tool is available for other retailers to use.

“GreenWERCS is a robust first step towards bringing the safest possible products to consumers and complements EDF’s work to reform chemical safety legislation and press for full public ingredient disclosure,” says Harvey.

When the world’s largest retailer demands change for the better, it usually happens, as when Walmart requested laundry detergent with less water. The bottom line is: more sustainable products benefit us all.

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