Survey: Americans Are the Least Eco-Friendly, Least Guilty

The United States of America may be scooping up heaps of medals at the Olympics, but in terms of environmental sustainability, a recent National Geographic survey found us coming in dead last. That’s right: America isn’t just the land of opportunity; apparently, it’s also the land of environmental apathy.  
Conducted from March to May of this year, the survey of conservation conscious lifestyles in seventeen countries ranked the USA at the very bottom of the green list, finishing below Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.
The list is compiled using the “Greendex,” an index created using responses from 17,000 participants who answer questions regarding housing, transportation, and consumption of food and goods. Housing and transportation account for 30% each of the Greendex, while scores in food and goods account for 20% each. A lower Greendex score implies lower eco-sustainability. Americans came in last in each of the sub-categories except for food, where the United States came in third-to-last, ranking only above Mexico and Japan.
“This is the fourth year of the Greendex study,” writes the survey’s 204-page report. “In each previous wave, the Greendex scores of the majority of consumers surveyed increased. 2012 is the first year in which there are more decreases than increases across the 17 countries surveyed. Consumers in developing nations continue to fill the top tier of the Greendex rankings, while the bottom nine countries are all industrialized.”  
But aside from exposing America’s eco-unconsciousness, the survey also revealed some interesting tidbits about our reluctance to go green.  
While 45% of Mexican consumers and 46% of Argentinean consumers strongly agreed to being “very concerned about environmental problems,” only 20% of US consumers said the same. And even more tellingly, only 21% of Americans “feel guilty” over their environmental impact, compared with 42% Chinese, 42% of Mexicans, and 45% of Indians.  
34% of Americans feel that global warming will negatively affect their personal lifestyles within their lifetimes, while 72% of Brazilians and 67% of Mexicans say it will. On a faintly more positive note, over half of American consumers surveyed agreed that as a society, we should reduce our consumption.  
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:American_flag.jpg

Apple of My Eye: The GM Fruit that Never Browns

 

Neal Carter, president and founder of the Okanagan Specialty Fruits Company, is a man on a mission: to bring apples back to the core of America’s snack stash.
He sees the problem. An entire apple, Carter explained to the New York Times, is “for many people too big a commitment,” yet individual apple slices turn unappealingly brown when left out to sit.
Carter’s solution: a genetically modified apple that doesn’t brown when sliced, diced, peeled, or bruised. But the rest of the apple industry sees the GM fruit, now dubbed the Arctic Apple, as a new problem in and of itself, and is crusading to keep it out of the market.
“We don’t think it’s in the best interest of the apple industry of the United States to have that product in the marketplace at this time,” said Christian Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council, an organization that represents growers accounting for about 60% of America’s apples.
And why the fierce opposition to a product that, according to Carter, could boost American apple sales by boosting the fruit’s attractiveness? Image, but in another sense. Americans have been consuming genetically modified, processed, and preserved foods for over two decades, but never something as wholesome and sweetly traditional as a fresh apple. In the words of Andrew Pollack of The New York Times, “[US apple producers] say that, while they do not believe genetic engineering is dangerous, it could undermine the fruit’s image as a healthy and natural food, the one that keeps the doctor away and is as American as, well, apple pie.
Carter argues back that the Arctic Apple would only improve the fruit’s status and the nation’s health. He cites the current popularity of pre-sliced apples, available in baggies at the supermarket and in fast food joints like McDonalds and Burger King. But those slices, he says, don’t brown because they’re preserved with a Calcium and Vitamin C coat, which sacrifices taste for appearance.
Plus, he adds, apples that don’t brown when bruised can lead to less waste, as supermarkets often throw out any unsightly apples damaged during shipping. John Rice of the Rice Fruit Company in Pennsylvania backs Carter up on that, saying, “We discard an awful lot of fruit for even minor bruising.”
Currently, the Okanagan Specialty Fruits Company is seeking approval for the Arctic Apple in Canada and the United States. Of course, it could take some time. The US Department of Agriculture just opened a 60-day public comment period on the company’s application, whereas a similar comment period recently ended in Canada.
But while apple producers and regulatory commissions duke it out, what’s the poor, forgotten consumer to do? After a year of “What’s in my food?” freak-outs—from pink slime to insect-laden pink drinks—are Americans finally ready to move towards more natural fare? Or will appearance, once again, triumph over substance?
And just as it reportedly riveted Sir Isaac Newton back in the 1600s, the apple is back to provoking more thought today.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Apples.jpg

Scientists Forecast Bleak Future for Coral Reefs

The mood at the 12th International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS) in Cairns, Australia was glum, as more than 2,000 marine experts from more than 80 countries reached a single conclusion: the state of the world’s coral reefs has gone from “worrisome to dire.”
And the prognosis is grim. By 2050, scientists expect half of the planet’s remaining coral reefs to suffer severe bleaching if policy makers don’t implement strategies to protect them. The scientists did also note, however, that if bleaching does not last too long, healthy corals can recover.
Despite the sliver of optimism, the experts stand by their call to action, urging local and national governments to join the environmental battle, and maintaining that the scientific community will stand behind them.
“It will take strong leadership by policy makers to make changes to protect reefs. We want them to know we are here to help, to provide the science to support those changes,” said Stephen Palumbi, director of the Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University, in an interview with the Inter Press Service.
“We have the science to defend those decisions. There is very good data on how to protect reefs and we know what works.”
But scientists know that while environmentally friendly, “what works” isn’t necessarily politically popular. Strategies to protect coral reefs often involve constraints on fishing, pollution, and coastal development, which tend to slow local economies.
The experts retort, however, that what might slow economies now will likely save them from collapsing in the future.
“Corals are extraordinarily valuable to humanity,” said Jane Lubchenco, head of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “A study from Belize estimated that without reefs protecting the shoreline, storms would cause 240 million dollars in damages.”
She went on to add that approximately 2.6 billion people rely on seafood as their main source of protein—seafood that’s protected by coral reefs, which serve as nurseries and habitats for many fish.
And the marine experts also agree on where to point fingers: CO2 emissions. According to The “Consensus Statement on Climate Change and Coral Reefs,”  “CO2 emissions at the current rate will warm sea surface temperatures by at least 2-3°C, raise sea-level by as much as 1.7 meters, reduce ocean pH from 8.1 to less than 7.9, and increase storm frequency and/or intensity. This combined change in temperature and ocean chemistry has not occurred since the last reef crisis 55 million years ago.”
The deadly combination of acidification and warming will leave oceans—and coral reefs—more vulnerable than ever. In fact, by 2070, the scenario gets even bleaker: 90% of the world’s coral reefs are expected to die.
The only hope? A stream of eco-conscious policies all over the globe. And if not…well, there just may not be anymore coral reefs to save.
Photo Credit: http://wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Coral_reef_at_palmyra.jpg

Lone Star Tick Triggering Meat Allergies—and Victory for Vegetarians

A bite from the lone star tick might make even the most voracious carnivores think twice before biting into a burger.
An inadvertent soldier in nature’s fight back against human consumption, the tiny tick—named for the single white spot on its back—has been turning barbecue-lovers into reluctant vegetarians along the East Coast, setting off allergic reactions to meat amongst those it bites.
“People will eat beef and then anywhere from three to six hours later start having a reaction; anything from hives to full-blown anaphylactic shock,” said Dr. Scott Commins, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “And most people want to avoid having the reaction, so they try to stay away from the food that triggers it.”
Scientists blame the tick’s saliva, which, seeps into the body through the bite wound and potentially interferes with normal biological functions. In laboratory tests, lone star tick bites led to elevated blood levels of alpha-gal, a complex sugar found in beef, pork, and lamb.
“It’s hard to prove,” said Dr. Commins, commenting on the relationship between the tick and its effect. “We’re still searching for the mechanism.”
While causation hasn’t yet been confirmed, a steady stream of support for correlation exists. Commins’ group has seen upwards of 400 meat allergy cases this year, and 90% of those affected reported having been nipped by the lone star tick.
But even though scientists are close to solving the health riddle, and even though the allergy’s becoming more and more common in the South and the East—perhaps, suppose officials, because a relatively warm weather year has brought out the ticks—experts still consider the allergy a bit, well, weird.
“It’s very atypical as food allergies go,” said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “Most food allergies occur very quickly. And it’s also a bit unusual to see adults develop a food allergy.”
Indeed, developing an allergy in adulthood is unusual. It’s also tough to adjust to, especially when it spoils a major food group and a major habit for most people. According to Commins, some patients are taking their fortune in stride, while others are taking their misfortune to the heart.
Either way, Mother Nature will be happy to know that a few diehard meat-eaters have officially gone green.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Amblyomma_americanum_tick_2.jpg

Wining and Designing: Scientist Turns Alcohol into Clothing

Jesus may have turned water into wine, but Gary Cass, a researcher at The University of Western Australia, has managed to turn wine into haute couture.
The idea was born with a simple observation: Cass noticed that a vat of wine contaminated with Acetobacter bacteria—a safe and non-pathogenic strain—had formed a rubbery textile on its surface. And then came the lightbulb moment: a routine biological process could transform the fashion world.
Working alongside artist Donna Franklin, Cass turned Mother Nature into a seamstress. The artist-scientist team put the same biological principle in action against molds of the human body, morphing red wine, white wine, and beer into clothing that fit mannequins and models like gloves. Seamless, labor-less, and biodegradable gloves, one should note.
In honor of the living microbes that do the work, the duo has christened the fabric “Micro’be’.” But Micro’be’ is far from ready-to-wear. Despite its environmental advantages, the material has some obtrusive practical disadvantages.
One of the more glaring drawbacks? Clothing made from Micro’be’ is stubbornly inflexible. Dressing and undressing would make for a regular dilemma. And God forbid you gain weight.  
And then there’s the smell. Micro’be’ retains both the original color and odor of the alcohol it’s made from. While wine-colored fabric has had its fashion moments, smelling like a fine wine has never been recommended in Vogue—or even Cosmopolitan. In fact, it’s generally best not to reek of alcohol, especially when around family and police officers.
Cass and Franklin, however, maintain they’re hard at work trying to sew up the holes in their design. And while the very thought seems outlandish now, who knows? Maybe someday, Micro’be’ will be the go-to choice for the eco-friendly and fashion-forward.
Visit bioalloy.org for more information and photos of Micro’be’.
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Red_wine_closeup_in_glass.jpg

Obese Ohio Boy Returned to Mother after Losing 50 Pounds

A few months ago, the news shocked the nation: officials took a Cleveland, Ohio nine-year-old from his mother and put him in foster care, on the charges that he weighed in at a whopping 218 pounds and she was doing little to help him slim down. Now, 50 pounds lighter, the boy is returning home, along with a free gym membership, nutritional counseling, and exercise equipment, donations from health organizations in the area.
Back in March, officials returned the child to his mother under protective supervision. But it took all the way until May for a juvenile judge to release the boy from the supervision, though social workers still plan on looking in on the family from time to time.
“We will remain involved as long as the mother allows us to remain involved,” said Mary Louise Madigan, spokeswoman for Cuyahoga County Children and Family Services. “She doesn’t have to allow anything anymore, because essentially the two years has passed, legally we’re at the end of the line.”
The county’s Children and Family Services agency claims to have worked with the family for up to a year before finally placing the boy in the care of his uncle last fall.
Reports indicated that the boy, who suffers from sleep apnea, a weight-related sleep disorder that causes sufferers to cease breathing for brief points during the night, first received attention when his mother brought him to a hospital for breathing problems last year. The then-second-grader was promptly enrolled in “Healthy Kids, Healthy Weight,” a weight-loss program run by Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. He managed to shed a few pounds, but after he began to gain them back, the Department of Children and Family Services asked for custody of the boy, seeking to place him into a foster home.
Since then, the nine-year-old has dieted his way down to 166 pounds.
But while the 50 dropped pounds is a major milestone, the case has raised some questions about the direction in which the fight against childhood obesity will sway.
Some wonder: is it beneficial, or even ethical, to separate kids from their families because they’re at risk for obesity-related diseases? According to one family who’s gone through a similar ordeal, it’s not.
Anamarie Regino, now a teenager, was placed in foster care as a ninety-pound three-year-old. She didn’t improve, was diagnosed with a genetic predisposition to being heavy, and eventually, returned to live with her parents.
“They say it’s for the well-being of the child, but it did more damage than any money or therapy could ever to do to fix it,” said her mother, Adela Martinez.
But on the other side of the spectrum, some health pundits encourage the drastic measures, claiming that allowing a child to become obese is akin to child abuse and endangerment.
Dr. David Ludwig, an obesity specialist at Children’s Hospital Boston, and Lindsey Murtagh, a lawyer and researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health, say the point isn’t to blame or punish parents, but to get obese children the help their families can’t—or don’t—provide them.
Government intervention “”ideally will support not just the child but the whole family, with the goal of reuniting child and family as soon as possible. That may require instruction on parenting,” Ludwig said.
Murtaugh, Ludwig’s co-author on an opinion piece on the topic, concurred.
“Despite the discomfort posed by state intervention, it may sometimes be necessary to protect a child.”

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Popcorn02.jpg

Massachusetts Lifts Ban on Bake Sales

Life is sweet again for cupcake lovers.
On Thursday, May 10, the Massachusetts legislature ditched a controversial law passed earlier this month that would ban junk food sold in the cafeteria, treats brought in for birthday celebrations, and yes, bake sales, too.
Set to take effect on August 1, the law on nutritional standards in school didn’t sit too well with parents or legislators, who considered the move too extreme. Faced with rising waves of criticism, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick had no choice but to repeal the restriction, urging public health officials to back down.
Now, while the strict nutrition standards will stand in the cafeteria, with sweets barred from vending machines, snack shops, and lunch-line fare, classrooms will be free from the restraints. That means holiday cupcakes in classrooms are once again legal and bake sale fundraisers are back on.
But Patrick and his team emphasize that despite the supposed setback, Massachusetts, has not given up the battle against childhood obesity, determined to cut down calories, sugar, and waistlines in schools.
“The school nutrition standards have always been about reducing childhood obesity in Massachusetts and protecting our kids from the serious long-term health impacts that obesity can cause,’’said John Auerbach, state public health commissioner, in a statement to reporters.
“At the direction of Governor Patrick, the department will seek to remove these provisions. We hope to return the focus to how we can work together to make our schools healthy environments in which our children can thrive.’’
Much of the outcry against the ban on bake sales came from extracurricular advisors at schools, who say that the sale of cookies and cupcakes accounts for a large portion of the cash they need to keep after-school programs running.
Terri L. Murphy, who works as treasurer for the Music, Art, and Drama Association in Ipswich, Massachusetts, told the Boston Globe that upon hearing news of the new law, she e-mailed Ipswich representative Bradford Hill to plead her case.
“It was like, ‘Oh, no, we’re going to lose about $6,000 a year,’” said Murphy, adding that while the program offers up healthy goodies for sale, they don’t bring in the money like good old-fashioned brownies and donuts do.
“Do we put out apples and oranges and yogurt? Yes. Do they sell? No.”
But proponents of the law retort that profits shouldn’t come above health, noting that many schools have successfully raised money for programs without resorting to sweet snacks.
“We are telling the students you need to eat healthy except if you want to purchase something in the corridor to support an organization, so then it’s OK if you eat unhealthy,’’ said Gail Koutroubas, food service director of the Andover public schools and president of the School Nutrition Association of Massachusetts, when speaking to the Boston Globe.
Despite the controversy, however, Massachusetts officials remain optimistic, sure that they are sailing in the right direction.
“Nobody’s interested in banning bake sales,’’ said Governor Patrick. “What we are interested in is student nutrition and delivering good choices.’’
Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Strawberry_cupcakes.jpg

Starbucks Ditches Bugs as Dye in Drinks

Back in March, news outlets stirred up a storm when they reported on an unusual ingredient creeping in Starbucks’ strawberry drinks: insects.

Now, about a month later, Starbucks is announcing that it’s scrapping the bugs from its drinks, replacing the dye-producing critters with lycopene, a tomato extract, instead.

“We fell short of your expectations,” said Starbucks president Cliff Burrows in an online statement. “We are reformulating the affected products to assure the highest quality possible.”

The switch from bug-based to tomato-based dye is slated to happen by June. It was actually only January that the insects were originally added to Starbucks fare, meant as an alternative to artificial coloring.

The move comes in response to a wave of public outrage, particularly from vegan and consumer advocate groups, that rose when Starbucks admitted to using Dactylopius coccus, tiny white insects that produce a red pigment, cochineal, when ground up. The bugs have proven perfect for keeping pretty-in-pink products, such as strawberry smoothies and fraps, red velvet whoopee pies, birthday cake pop, and frosted mini-donuts, “all-natural.”

Cochineal has been used for centuries, especially in paints, makeup, and yes, food too.

Yet while Starbucks touted the insect-based dye’s status as a “safe product that poses no health risk,” the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) begged to differ, requiring goods containing cochineal to be labeled accordingly. The concern stems from the potential side effects of consuming the dye, including asthma attacks and severe allergic reactions for some.

But also playing a part in the anti-insect uproar was the lack of information given to customers, particularly vegans, who felt tricked into consuming animal products. As it turned out, a dairy-free frap wasn’t safe territory after all.

With Starbucks’ latest change, however, fury is fading into forgiveness.

“Through this move, Starbucks has shown that it cares about the opinions of its consumers,” said blogger Daelyn Fortney of ThisDishisVeg.com, who broke the bug story in the first place.

Animal rights’ organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has also praised the company’s move.

Yet other consumers are waiting until June to celebrate, and for now, hold the Starbucks scandal as a reminder that with purchased food, you can never be too careful.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Strawberry_Italian_soda.jpg

Kiss of Death: Can Lipstick Raise Risk for Diabetes?

The outlook for makeup keeps getting uglier and uglier.

Lead-laden lipstick. Skin creams made with mercury. A slew of animal-tested products on the market.

And now, a new report that link lipstick to increased rates of diabetes.

The connection lies in phthalates—esters of phthalic acid used to make plastic-based products more flexible, durable, and transparent. Lipstick, as well as other cosmetics, contains BPA (the phthalate Bisphenol-A), which, according to Cathryn Wellner of care2.com, tends to travel through the pores and into the bloodstream.

The recent study from Sweden’s Uppsala University tested 1,016 70-year-olds, 119 of whom had developed diabetes. After a round of blood tests, researchers discovered that seniors with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies also had higher rates of diabetes—almost twice the rates of those with lower levels.

The research confirms earlier literature on phthalates and diabetes. In 2005, Spanish and Mexican scientists found that BPA “disrupts pancreatic beta-cell function…and induces insulin resistance.” And in February of this year, researcher Angel Nadal of the Miguel Hernandez University in Spain found that BPA “triggers the release of almost double the insulin actually needed to break down food,” according to the Huffington Post.

“When you eat something with BPA, it’s like telling your organs that you are eating more than you are really eating,” said Nadal.

High insulin levels, in turn, often lead to weight gain and Type II Diabetes, two health epidemics that the United States is currently busy battling.

Even more frightening is that a little BPA can do a lot of damage health-wise.

“It takes so little of this chemical to cause harm,” says Frederick vom Saal, expert in endocrine disruptors at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

And according to WebMD researcher P. Monica Lind: “Even at relatively low levels of phthalate metabolites in the blood, the risk of getting diabetes begins to rise.”

BPA, of course, is found in more than just makeup; it’s also a common ingredient in other personal care items, as well as soda- and food-can linings. Since the chemical often goes unlabeled, consumers can ingest it unwittingly.

And BPA has also been found to contribute to more than just diabetes; various studies report it can increase risk for cancer, heart disease, and damage to the reproductive system.

Yet though the facts are stacked against BPA, regulators have done surprisingly little to limit its use. Health Canada only bans BPA in baby bottles, reports care2. And the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows BPA in packaged food containers, deeming evidence against phthalates “inconclusive.”

Corporations: 1, Consumers: 0.

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Lipstick_army.jpg

Great Pacific Garbage Patch Greater than Initially Thought

A newly surfaced study reports that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of debris floating in the North Pacific Gyre—is up to 2.5 times larger than previously estimated by scientists and government officials.

The analysis, lead by oceanographer Giora Proskurowski, focused on finding the amount of garbage below the ocean’s surface, a depth defined as the top twenty-five centimeters of water. What Proskurowski’s team discovered was alarming: trash was present as far down as 25 meters under the ocean’s coat.

In other words, earlier studies had deeply underestimated the size of the garbage patch and the amount of debris swirling in the Pacific.

Proskurowski first thought to delve below the problem’s surface while watching the waves during a sailing trip; he noticed scraps of debris pulling a disappearing act, sinking down into the deep when the wind picked up.

Together with Tobias Kukulka of the University of Delaware, he devised a plan to measure just how much trash was really hidden from view, using a system of nets that opened and closed only at specific depths.

“Almost every subsurface tow we took had plastic in the net,” said Proskurowski in an interview with LiveScience.

Proskurowski and Kukulka then used their data to make a mathematical model capable of calculating the average amounts of garbage at different depths, as well as how those numbers changed with varying wind velocities.

Their conclusion? Studies relying only on surface-sampling underestimated the level of trash in the water by 2.5 times, and on a windy day, a mind-bogglingly shocking 27 times.

Gathered and held together by ocean currents, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, contains high levels of an assortment of plastic debris—abandoned fishing nets, plastic bags, food wrappers—that breaks down into tiny pieces, but does not biodegrade. Because the plastic can decompose all the way to the molecular level, the garbage patch is not clearly visible.

But as we’ve learned, even though we see no evil, the evil still exists.

Plastic waste is capable of disrupting ecosystems, both on the microscopic and macroscopic level. Fish, birds, and other marine animals can ingest chemicals that cause hormone disruption and other toxic effects, and chunks of plastic that their digestive systems cannot break down. Additionally, specks of trash can house bacteria and algae, and carry them to new ecosystems where they potentially become invasive species.

In response to the study’s findings, an online petition has begun, aimed at urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take greater action in battling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Anyone interested in signing the survey may do so here: http://forcechange.com/19808/plastic-trash-in-pacific-ocean-is-greater-than-originally-anticipated/

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:North_Pacific_Gyre_World_Map.png