Great Address, Too Bad About the Pollution

Just the other day, while out for a walk on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I noticed thick black smoke hanging over Columbus Avenue, while particles of soot rained down on the sidewalk. The wind carried the smoke eastward, over a nearby schoolyard and into Central Park, where it began to dissipate.

New York’s new rule requires buildings to switch to 90% less polluting heating fuels

It took me a few minutes to find the source – the chimney of a large, nearby apartment building. I snapped photos of the oily stuff as it poured into the sky, and wondered if it was even legal to pollute in such a blatant way. The smoke came from burning dirty heating oil – and, yes, it’s legal. But that will soon be changing, thanks in part to EDF, which has led the fight to regulate heating oil and is helping the city promote an “early adopter” campaign to encourage building owners to convert to cleaner fuel.

Mary Barber, EDF’s Campaign Director for the New York region, is coordinating a campaign to rid the city of dirty heating oil. In her office, she showed me jars containing Nos. 6, 4, and 2 oil. The No. 2 oil was a light, golden liquid tinged with red. By contrast, No. 6 was a viscous, unrefined black sludge.

In New York, some 10,000 buildings — many in the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods — burn No. 6 and No.4 heating oil, the dirtiest and cheapest available. This oil causes more soot pollution than all of the city’s cars and trucks combined. And particulate pollution — made of tiny particles — is toxic. Particles lodge deep in the lungs and cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease, and increase the risk of cancer. For example, in New York City, asthma hospitalization rates among children under 14 are double the national average. EDF exposed this hazard in a groundbreaking report, The Bottom of the Barrel: How the Dirtiest Heating Oil Pollutes Our Air and Harms Our Health.

“It is an outrage that so much dirty fuel is burned in the heart of our most crowded neighborhoods – we simply cannot move fast enough to get rid of it,” said EDF’s New York region director Andy Darrell, a member of New York Mayor Bloomberg’s Sustainability Advisory Board.

On January 28, 2011 the Bloomberg administration took a stand on this issue by proposing a game-changing rule requiring the phase-out of the dirtiest grade of heating oil by 2015, and for all buildings to convert to cleaner fuel when they replace their boiler or burner. The rule also mandates that all buildings convert to cleaner fuels by 2030.

The new rule, coupled with other legislation, is expected to reduce heating oil soot pollution by 40% by 2015 and by 65% by 2030.

EDF and a broad coalition of allies successfully pushed for the new rule all year and convinced regulators to advance the phaseout deadline from 2040 to 2015. “This is a huge step to rid the city of the plumes of smoke that choke our children’s lungs,” said Darrell, “By switching to cleaner fuels, New York City will prove that a mega-city can grow and clean the air at the same time.”

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas prices are predicted to stay lower than oil prices for the next 25 years. For that reason, EDF is urging buildings to make the change even faster than the rule requires. “Buildings can take advantage of low natural gas prices and improved energy efficiency to cut their operating costs far into the future,” explains EDF attorney Isabelle Silverman. “Why keep wasting money and fouling the air?”

The impact of the phase-out on illnesses from asthma to heart disease could be “second only to our achievements in reducing the city’s smoking rates,” predicts Thomas Farley, the city’s health commissioner.

“For those at risk of acute asthma and heart disease, this new rule is a new lease on life,” adds Jason Schwartz of the Institute for Policy Integrity.

The city’s goal is to have every heating system converted by 2030. That means a generation of children will still grow up breathing too much soot. Why the wait? Barber explains that the switch from No. 6 and 4 oil is more complicated than it seems. “Everyone wants to do it — at first,” she says. “Then they start to learn about what’s involved.”

Each building must hire an engineer to assess the system in place, and come up with solutions that can range from replacing old oil tanks to running gas lines from the street to the building or installing a dual fuel burner (so that clean natural gas can be alternated with high grade oil.) Masonry chimneys may need a liner. In other words, converting a building’s heating system could cost up to $300,000 or more. If you consider how long it takes the average coop board to agree on a color scheme for the lobby, you can understand why such changes will take time.

Still, some of Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods and most famous buildings burn the dirtiest oil, so change can’t wait. An interactive EDF map shows where the worst offenders are. Among its revelations: The majestic Dakota on Central Park West, where John Lennon lived, burns No. 6 oil. Is it possible that Yoko Ono and her fellow tenants are among the city’s worst polluters?

The new rule will be open for public comments with a public hearing on February 28 — and look to powerful interests to weigh in. The EDF team will be in the thick of the negotiations, working to ensure the best possible outcome.

For far too long, soot has been the most ubiquitous sign of a New York City winter. You open the window of your overheated apartment and the sill is soon dusted with soot. A white blanket of new-fallen snow is quickly covered in black speckles. Black smudges appear on your handkerchief when you blow your nose.

All those delights come to us from the burning of dirty No. 4 and No. 6 heating oil. It’s time for that to change. To paraphrase the Dakota’s most famous resident: All we are saying is give clean a chance.

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What You Can Do

New Yorkers united to get cleaner air and you can too. Join EDF’s Clear the Air campaign to get involved and protect our right to clean air.

Air Pollution isn’t Just Dirty, it’s Poisonous!

I spent the year-end holidays in a surprising way: helping friends set up a nursery. They are expecting a baby in March, but when troubling signs of a premature delivery threatened, the mother was rushed into the hospital and put on bed rest. She’s one of the busiest, most active people I know, so the next few months (touch wood) aren’t going to be easy for her. But she will do whatever it takes to protect her infant.

Kids would build a snowman and it would turn black overnight

At the hospital, my friend is learning more about the development of her child’s brain; she’s being urged to take vitamins and supplements to enhance its growth. Naturally, she hasn’t been worrying about the air she breathes. Most of us don’t. But while I was online searching for cribs, on a brilliantly sunny morning after a blizzard — and checking the weather ahead — I stumbled on a surprising news release from the Environmental Protection Agency: the air quality in much of New England at year end was poor, due to elevated levels of fine particle pollution. The agency recommended that people limit strenuous outdoor activity.

Somehow, I thought this kind of warning was a thing of the past. I was wrong. We take for granted that we are breathing clean air — and it is cleaner than it was 40 years ago, before the Clean Air Act became law. There’s an entire new generation of parents that don’t have any memory of a time when air and water pollution was so severe that an oil-soaked river could actually catch fire, as happened in Ohio in 1969.

So why should mothers in this country worry about air quality now? Haven’t we got enough on our minds? The fact is that many families are living near smokestacks that spew toxic brews. With coal-burning power plants and cement plants spewing out mercury and other toxic emissions, more than 150 million Americans still breathe air that fails to meet national air quality standards.

A harrowing account of the effects of air pollution on a community can be found in a series that ran last month in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. As one mother put it: “My kids would build a snowman and it would turn black overnight. We don’t smoke, but living here is like we’re smoking.” Other quotes from Pennsylvania residents describe cancer patterns, ill children, and utter frustration at getting laws enforced; they are heartbreaking.

In 2009, USA Today ran a prize-winning investigation into air quality around schools, and found that in thousands of them, the modeled concentrations of air pollutants were at least twice as toxic as those found in nearby neighborhoods — and in some cases, ten times more so.

Let’s be clear about this: Air pollution isn’t just dirty. It is poisonous. Particulate pollution, which we inhale, is a complex mixture of things like nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, soils and dust particles. Air pollution affects fetal organ development. It is linked to stunted lung growth, irregular heartbeat and a higher risk of low birth weight.

Coal-fired plants are the largest source of mercury emissions; mercury from smokestacks is a potent neurotoxin that harms brain development not only in fetuses, but in growing children. Coal plants are also the biggest emitters of the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Instead of facing up to their legally-mandated responsibilities to clean the air, big polluters have a new pipe dream: they and their trade associations, lobbyists and assorted front groups are behind efforts in Congress to handcuff Environmental Protection Agency, which enforces clean air laws. It may be hard to believe that anyone, or any company, is pro-pollution, but that’s what it amounts to.

The smokescreen for their arguments? That regulating pollution harms the economy. The president of the American Petroleum Institute, Jack Gerard, recently made the outrageous claim that EPA was “restructur[ing] the American economy.”

That simply isn’t true. As air pollution has dropped, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has risen by 207% since 1970 when the Clean Air Act was passed. Clean air has been good for our economy. It has spurred innovation, created new jobs and markets, improved productivity — and cut health care costs. There is simply no justification for pollution. It is an inhumane practice.

Clean air has been a bipartisan issue for 40 years; this should make us proud. The 1970 law was signed by Richard Nixon, and the 1990 Amendments, passed by a Democratic-majority Congress, were signed by President George H.W. Bush. Unfortunately, his legacy was undercut by the second President Bush, and now, Texas Governor Rick Perry is among those leading the charge against EPA.

Because Texas is home to so many coal plants, Texans today breathe some of the dirtiest air in the nation. Texas has some of the highest ozone concentrations in the country, is number one in emissions of the most serious pollutants; in many areas the pollution levels exceed toxicity in the state’s own guidelines. Their state regulators have been lax, allowing polluters to skirt regulations with a special permit system. A real sign of the times: EDF’s Elena Craft’s post on a phone app lets Texans know about the day’s air quality, so they can decide whether to go running, or let the children play outdoors.

It will be a national scandal if we let polluters sabotage the Clean Air Act. As I sat in the hospital room with my friend, a nurse moved an ultrasound wand over her belly. We heard the swoosh of blood throb through an infants’ heart, and tears came to our eyes. It is not too often that political issues are a matter of life and death, but this one is.

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Expectant mom

Take action to ensure our protections against mercury pollution.

What You Can Do

EDF has started a campaign to fight attempts to weaken EPA, but our representatives in Congress need to hear our voices as well.

Make your voice heard today.

Urge your members of Congress to oppose the “Mercury Pollution is Good for You” bill, which would block EPA standards limiting mercury pollution emitted into the air from cement plants.

No one has a right to make it harder for our children to catch a breath of fresh, clean air.

Meatless Monday Matters

Holidays seem to be a time of feasting, a season of muchness and more–and that means they’re also a perfect moment to think about eating in a different way. Borrowing a provocative adage from modernist architects, let’s consider a new approach to meals: Less is more.

You don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen to make a big change in the world.

Until recently, I was only vaguely aware of an initiative called Meatless Mondays. I thought it was a ploy to lure me into vegetarianism, a dining style I’ve tried and failed to maintain many times. I simply like eating meat too much to give it up.
I’ve also grown weary of the smug superiority that characterizes so much food talk: you’re a better person if you buy local; a superior person if you pay extra for organic; and a peerless person if you harvest and slaughter your own food. Most of us don’t usually have these options–though I hope someday organic becomes the new, affordable norm. “Foodie” conversation exhausted me, and I just started tuning it out.

Brussels sprouts

Then I heard a lecture given by Dr. Robert Lawrence of Johns Hopkins University at an Environmental Defense Fund Science Day in San Francisco. EDF Science Days are private events during which experts discuss emerging environmental issues. Dr. Lawrence, an expert in environmental health sciences, surveyed the costs of America’s meat addiction and asked us to consider a simple idea: Meatless Monday. It sounded at first forbiddingly moralistic. But then I learned what a sensible, economical idea it was– good for your health, and good for the planet.

Since the 1980s, Americans have been eating too much–way more than we did fifty years ago. Today, we consume, on average, about 3,200 calories per day, roughly 1,000 calories more than we need to stay healthy – even as we lead more sedentary lives. Food in America is easily available and, because much of it is subsidized, extremely cheap. There are fast food chains on every corner and microwaveable meals at every supermarket. The result? Obesity and an epidemic of preventable heart disease, along with diabetes, strokes, and cancers.

Sixty-five percent of our daily protein comes from animals (compare that to the worldwide figure, around 30%). Americans eat about eight ounces of meat a day. The average annual per capita meat consumption in the 1970s was 168 pounds; by 2005 it was up to 185 pounds. Beef consumption peaked in 1975 then began declining as people became aware of the link between cardiovascular disease and fat-saturated diets. We started eating much more chicken. (Lawrence points out that one million broilers are raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour). This accounts for the continued rise in meat consumption. (Get a shareable list of these meaty stats »)

All meat production has a powerful impact on the planet–cattle more than chickens, of course. Meat production emits more greenhouse gases than growing crops, but agricultural activity also contributes heavily to climate change. To connect the dots between food and climate change, Lawrence underlined the impact of several factors:

  • the clearing of forests to create more farmland
  • the fossil fuel needed to make fertilizer, run equipment and transport food
  • the water needed to irrigate farmland and quench the thirst of the animals. (Up to 80% of the West’s water is consumed by agriculture)
  • reactive nitrogen from liberally applied fertilizers and pesticides, which then run off into rivers and lakes or seep into our aquifers
  • the methane released from beef cattle

Our taste for burgers is destroying the rainforests. Brazilian government figures attribute 38% of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large scale cattle ranching. From 1996 to 2006 an area the size of Portugal has been carved out of Brazilian rainforest and turned into grassland to feed cattle herds.

Modern farming and meat production are heavily reliant on chemicals that work their way not only into the flesh of the beasts we eat, but into our water as well. Dr. Lawrence points out that over 1,600 chemicals used in producing our food have never been tested for safety.

“We are facing unprecedented human health problems,” related to food production, says Dr. Lawrence. “Our produce gets contaminated by fecal matter from irrigation waters polluted by industrial food-animal facilities.” And because some farms make massive use of prophylactic antibiotics on animals weakened by the unsanitary conditions in which they are raised, some bacteria are growing resistant to treatment. These drugs are entering the human food chain too.

As other countries adopt our diets, 20 years from now when there are 8 billion people in the world, there simply won’t be enough room on the planet to produce the food to support the way we eat now.

Several years ago, scientists recommended that Americans cut their saturated fat intake by 15%. Researchers at Johns Hopkins’ Center for a Livable Future realized that the easiest way for people to do that would be to avoid meat one day a week, hence Meatless Monday.

It turns out you don’t have to make a big change in your kitchen in order to make a big change in the world–and improve your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, if all of us adopted this simple initiative, we would save enough energy annually – from avoided meat production – equivalent to taking eight million cars off the road.

Use Spades Not Ships poster

Meatless Monday is doable. In fact, it’s been done. During World War I and World War II, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in order to ensure that our armies had enough food, mounted successful campaigns for Meatless Monday and Wheatless Wednesday. They encouraged Americans to plant Victory gardens, using slogans like “Dig for Victory” and “Use Spades Not Ships.” The FDA should mount a similar campaign today, one that emphasizes public and environmental health.

There’s no magic to Monday, of course, unless you have an ear for alliteration. Monday seems to be a good day to recover from the weekend (though for me, weekends are an easier time to find the hours to prepare a meal, and Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be Leftover Days.) The main point is to have at least one meatless day a week. And avoid having three meat courses in one day. After what I’ve learned–vegetarians are the healthiest subgroup in this country–I’m planning on three meatless days a week.

And here’s another benefit: conversation at the family table about the connections between our food, our bodies and the whole planet. A meatless dinner can be a wonderful setting in which to model ways to cherish our world. What better lesson is there? Pass on the meat–and please pass the Brussels sprouts.

Personal Nature

We want to hear from you. Tell us if you’re going meatless on Mondays and then share your favorite meatless recipes in the comments.

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America’s Meaty Diet

The numbers behind America’s meat consumption may surprise you.

Average American’s calories per day, roughly 1,000 more than we need to stay healthy
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Chemicals used in food production that have never been tested for safety
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West’s water consumed by agriculture
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American’s daily protein from animals

Rest of the world’s daily protein from animals
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168 lb
U.S. average annual per capita meat consumption in 1970

185 lb
U.S. average annual per capita meat consumption in 2005
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1 million
Broiler chickens raised, killed and prepared in this country per hour
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The Rising Power of Eco Moms

Yes! Prop 23—a proposal in California, underwritten by Texas oil companies, to repeal the strongest clean energy law in the nation—was resoundingly defeated on Election Day. But apart from that victory, media pundits seem to believe that around the country, environmentalists and their concerns were soundly trounced. I think they are reading the wrong tea leaves.

Eco Moms express simple values: cherish natural resources; keep the world clean.

The Tea Party may be full of science Luddites, but there’s another important activist group in the U.S. and it is growing fast. It isn’t run by anyone, and has no political candidates—yet. I’m calling it the Green Tea Party, and it is made up of millions of women I think of as Eco Moms. It is going to be–it is already–a game changer.

I count myself among these women. EcoFocus Worldwide, a marketing research consultant, estimates that “the EcoAware Moms market includes more than 50 million women, 69% of [all] moms, and has more than $1.45 trillion in buying power.” Best of all, consumer power can translate to political clout.

Most of us wouldn’t say we’re out to save the planet. And we don’t walk around numb with fear, gloomy about the future. Raising children is anxiety-provoking enough. But we want change. We want global warming addressed. We want to protect our homes from toxic chemicals. We want the government to which we pay our taxes to keep our families safe.

By the Numbers: Eco Moms vs. ChemicalsEco Moms teach our children not to keep the water running while they brush their teeth, to switch off the lights when they leave the room, to walk or bike to a friend’s house, to unplug chargers and shut off computers at night, not to let the engine idle at the mall. We’re about small actions that, within a family, express simple values: cherish natural resources; keep the world clean.

“Our children are growing up differently than we did,” says Lori Yanes, an Eco Mom from West Orange, N.J., who has three sons. “If I forget to recycle something, my kids are all over me. Being green is a way of life for them.”

These days, the news is full of reports that our lives are awash in toxic chemicals. They are hidden in plastics, in detergents, in beauty products, in foods—things no one worried about a generation ago. While there is only so much we can do, as individuals, about climate change, there is a great deal we can do about day to day pollution—especially exposure to toxic chemicals, whether they’re in baby shampoo, or in a child’s bracelet.

When I read a recent blog post by Richard Denison, EDF’s senior scientist, about a new study linking the chemical bisphenol-A to low sperm counts, the first thing I did was send the post to every young man I know, beginning with my sons and nephews. No mom wants her children to be used as guinea pigs by the chemical industry; we want regulations that ensure chemicals are safe before they get under our babies’ skin. But make no mistake: right now, we’re all guinea pigs.

Video: Chemicals in Your Home

Learn about toxic chemicals in consumer products and what you can do at I am Not a Guinea Pig.

I had spent the summer ridding my own house of plastics with BPA (including those microwave popcorn bags with plastic liners), explaining to my sons the damage this chemical, an endocrine disrupter, can cause and how it can leach into food from plastic that is heated. BPA has even been found in some of the thermal paper used for cash register receipts—and it rubs off on our hands.

BPA is only one of many toxins we’re bringing into our homes. Every day, Eco Moms are learning about problems with chemicals, networking for advice and information about safe products. New websites and new support communities are springing up to keep us informed about the latest findings.

Judy Shils qualifies as one of the world’s most devoted and influential Eco Moms, and her work provides a model of how values are transmitted to the next generation. In 2005, while she was setting up the Marin Cancer Project to investigate why cancer rates there were soaring, she began working with a group of teenagers who were interested in what toxins were lurking in their beauty products. Teens for Safe Cosmetics played a key role in the passage of the California Safe Cosmetics Act in October 2005, and the Toxic Toys Bill in 2007.

To take on broader issues, Shils also founded Teens Turning Green which engages young people from 12 years old through college age. The student-led movement started around her kitchen table in the Bay Area and now has a presence in schools across the country.

Video: Eco Mom Judy Shils

Teens Turning Green founder Judy Shils on youth enthusiasm for safe, green products. (via Natural Products Expo)

“There is a tremendous surge of green energy coming from Moms these days—and now it is coming from their girls, too,” says Shils. “We have an opportunity to mentor and support a new generation of change makers, and wow, are these young women ever powerful! When they see an injustice, they want to fix it. They will heal the world.”

The power of Eco Moms extends beyond idealism. We also have enormous purchasing power, especially when it comes to deciding what products we allow in the house. Increasingly, we are demanding stuff that is safe and respectful of our values. The result? So-called “green” product lines are proliferating.

Ten years ago, there was usually one choice: go to a health food store and look for Seventh Generation. Today some of the biggest brands in household products have started green, natural lines. Gerber introduced Gerber Organic Baby Food. White Cloud has Green Earth bathroom tissue, and even Scott tissue is up to 40% recycled in their “Naturals” line. A couple of years ago Clorox launched its Greenworks line (the company also bought Burt’s Bees).

But there’s also been a tsunami of bogus or misleading green claims to go with this shift, and it can be hard to sort out the truth. It’s instructive, then, to see how clear Clorox has made its Greenworks labels. (I learned that the secret cleaning ingredient in their products, alkyl polyglucoside, is extracted from coconuts.) And the Greenworks website is a model of communication; it is upbeat, even humorous, and offers easy tips for keeping unnecessary chemicals out of the house.

Manufacturers are going to the trouble of appealing to Eco Moms for a reason: they are influential early adopters of products. If we buy what you’re selling, you are likely to profit from the connection. The lesson for Eco Moms is that our everyday decisions are important. They give us a sense of control over our environment, a way to feel we are making smart choices, doing something good for ourselves and our planet. But these decisions also acquire critical mass in the commercial world.

Yes, rampant consumerism is part of the problem. Too much of what we buy is disposable or just wasteful. But the rising power of Eco Moms gives me hope for a change in values. We are asking, in hundreds of different ways, for healthier, more sustainable choices. And we are getting answers. But with the counterproductive regulations in place now, we cannot know the full extent of harmful chemical exposure from the products we use daily.

Now it is time to leverage consumer power into legislative clout. We have to make our voices heard in Congress. Let the new 112th Congress know that Eco Moms want immediate reform of our scandalously inadequate chemical safety laws. It is up to us to make sure that the laws that are supposed to protect us from toxic chemicals actually do. We can get this done in 2011: Never underestimate the power of mothers of nature!

Help Protect Your Family from Dangerous Toxic Chemicals

Please stand up for the health of your family by joining thousands of concerned moms, dads and others in signing this pledge and telling Congress to strengthen our toxic chemicals standards. We will deliver your pledge along with the thousands of others to the new Congress when it's sworn in next year.

As a constituent and a concerned...

I am deeply troubled by the exposure of my... dangerous toxic chemicals, which are in everything from computers to carpets to clothing to couches.

These chemicals are so ubiquitous that every American alive today has hundreds of them flowing in our blood stream. And yet, America's main chemical safety law has never been significantly amended since it was adopted 34 years ago. As it is currently designed, this law does almost as much to ensure we are exposed to toxic chemicals as it does to protect us.

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