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Good Sunscreens, Bad Sunscreens

Wednesday, May 26, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

If you want to avoid bad sunscreens – those that don’t work, and even those that may actively be harmful to your health, beyond simply failing to block the sun – you should avoid nearly ALL sunscreens.

It’s that drastic a situation, according to the Environmental Working Group, which has been assessing sunscreens (since the government won’t do it properly) for four years now.

The EWG recommends just 8% of 500 beach and sport sunscreens on the market this season. There are several reasons so many sunscreens fail in the eyes of EWG, starting with this biggie: An ingredient found in nearly half of all sunscreen products may accelerate growth of skin tumors.

The ingredient is a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, found in a slew of beauty products for its skin-rejuvenation properties. But studies that go back as far as the late 1970s show a link between it and photocarcinogenesis in rats and mice. A 2000 overview of such studies, conducted by the National Toxicology Program (pdf), details the findings and says they’re inconclusive.

But the EWG says it’s too risky a gamble and consumers should avoid sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate or even any vitamin A.

Other reasons sunscreens didn’t make the cut include overinflated SPF claims (EWG says in everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2) and/or the inclusion of the hormone-disrupting compound oxybenzone among their ingredients.

So which sunscreens can we trust? Go to the EWG site to see the full recommended-sunscreen list, which includes the likes of Loving Naturals SPF 30+, All Terrain Aquasport Performance Sunscreen, Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen, and Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body.

Or you could avoid the sun as much as possible and wear a hat and shirt when you can’t. (Advice from the pasty.)

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Bug-free BBQs

Friday, May 21, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Bugs. They’re everywhere. Including in your face as you’re trying to serve your guests a glorious, low-CO2 feast in your backyard.

Lucky for us there are ways to limit the pests. Unlucky for us, it usually involves high levels of chemicals we really don’t want to be associated with. So we’ll just have to make the best of a bad situation, by learning exactly which types of repellents to avoid and which ones might be relatively innocuous.

The EPA’s Pesticides: Health and Safety Web site stresses no one should use a repellent that’s not registered with the agency. So there you can view those that are registered, and choose safely among them.

Now there is a little loophole, as is seemingly always the case when you’re dealing with the government, involving nonregistered repellents. There are some products that contain “ingredients considered to be minimal risk,” and products primarily composed of those ingredients are not required to be EPA-registered. So the issue isn’t necessarily safety, but rather effectiveness: Do these ingredients actually keep bugs away? The ingredients include things like soybean oil, mint, citronella oil, cinnamon, sesame, white pepper and zinc metal strips. The EPA can’t say for sure if this stuff works, so it can’t register them as repellents, but it can say almost definitely it’s not going to harm you from a chemical-exposure standpoint.

The best part of the EPA’s “official” list is it sorts the products by “hourly protection time,” so you can see exactly how long a particular brand is supposed to have you covered. The EPA list also shows a maximum of 30% DEET (the commonly understood “best” way to ward of mosquitoes) in any one brand, so, presumably, that’s the most allowed.

If you see some funky-sounding chemicals among ingredients, it might be a good idea to throw them into the ToxRefDB to see if they have a history of doing bad things to lab animals.

And if you want to avoid the likes of DEET altogether (which has shown deleterious effects in some studies) and give some natural remedies a try, check out this informative post from our friends at Mother Nature Network.

Finally, try simple good sense. One way to avoid bugs AND the repellents is to take steps such as eliminating standing water from around your yard, changing the water in bird baths at least once a week, and staying indoors during mosquito rush hours of sunrise, sunset and early evening.

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The Low-CO2 BBQ

Wednesday, May 19, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Backyard barbeques – one our favorite simple pleasures, right? And even here, there’s opportunity to cut back on our carbon footprint. Here’s how to limit the CO2 output of your next summer get-together.

Slow Food
It’s said that 30% of the greenhouse gases causing global warming can be traced back to the production of food. So if we’re smarter, more efficient about how and what we eat, there’s big potential to cut back on our carbon footprints.

Sad but true, it’s the staple of the backyard BBQ that’s one of the biggest offenders: Beef creates 19 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every kilogram served, according to studies. And the livestock industry alone is responsible for 18% of the world’s greenhouse emissions, a 2006 UN study showed. Calculating that takes into account everything from gas used by delivery trucks in getting the beef to a store to the amount of methane cows emit by burping.

Produce is much less “carbon evil,” if you will. For example, a kilogram of potatoes, by the time they’re served up baked on your patio table, equates to just 280 grams of emitted CO2.

Chicken is a relatively carbon friendly meat, representing 32% of the meat consumed worldwide but contributing only 8% of meat’s carbon footprint, according to a study out of Canada’s Dalhousie University.

Fish gets more complicated, with so many factors coming into play it’s tough to say which is the most carbon friendly. But generally, you want frozen fish, because it’s been trucked in to your store instead of flown in (as fresh fish is).

Overall, what you really want to do for a low-CO2 BBQ is limit the meat, max out the veggies and fruits, and make sure you buy from a farm close to your house.

For a fun exercise, check out the Bon Appétit Management Company’s Low Carbon Diet Calculator. It puts together a sort of greenhouse gas scorecard of a variety of meals.

Briquettes or Propane?
If you’re aiming for a green BBQ, here the answer is clear: Charcoal grills are far less environmentally friendly than gas grills.

According to a study released last year, charcoal grills have a carbon footprint almost three times those of propane grills (998 kg CO2e vs. 349 kg CO2e). (By the way, “CO2e” means “Carbon Dioxide Equivalent,” basically a way to universally express units of global warming, so it can include things other than just carbon, such as methane.)

A lot of that has to do with the efficiency with which the heat sources burn. Liquid propane gas, according to study author Eric Johnson, burns at near 90% efficiency, while charcoal is closer to just 20%. So you’re wasting almost 70% more energy right off the bat just using briquettes. When you include production and transportation of the two sources, it tips the scales heavily in favor of propane being the greener choice.

Eating It All
Perhaps the simplest way – certainly the most logical – to cut back is to finish your food. Instead of eating what we buy, we throw a lot of it away, which ends up producing methane – a particularly hazardous greenhouse gas – as it breaks down in landfills. According to a 2007 British study, the amount of emissions we’d save simply by eating our food instead of tossing it in the trash would equal taking 1 in 5 autos off the road.

So salute your host, get your fill, and clear your conscience all at the same time just by licking your plate clean!

Meanwhile, in Captivate Web Land, we've kicked off a new feature this week to prep you all for those Memorial Day, unofficial-start-of-summer BBQs: Burger Week! All the blogs are involved, so be sure to surf on over to check out the offerings:

-Captivate Cooking has the burgers and sides to keep your grills sizzling with gourmet treats and your guests begging for the recipes!

-Our online Watering Hole quenches everyone's thirst with 8 simple, delicious drinks.

-Want to imbibe but are unsure of how your bathing-suit diet will be affected? Weigh-In has Slimming Summer Drinks as an alternative to bottle of beer!

-Need a new apron for a man or woman? Don't start shopping until you've read this Indulge post!

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Oil Spill's Effect On Wildlife

Thursday, May 6, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Florida coral reef

No one seems to know yet exactly how the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is affecting wildlife. But it’s going to have some effect, obviously. Look no further than the fallout in Prince William Sound for proof.

The situation is summed up best perhaps by Andre Landry, Jr., a turtle expert at Texas A&M, who told OnEarth’s Osha Gray Davidson, "At this point, I can't say if any turtles have died due to oil from the rig explosion. That doesn't mean they haven't. And it certainly does not mean that they won't."

The animals at risk include lots and lots of fish, from shellfish like shrimp and crabs to finfish like red snapper and bull sharks; birds like the brown pelican and royal tern; marine mammals like sperm whales and bottlenose dolphins; and the aforementioned turtles, like Kemp’s Ridleys and hawksbills.

Kemp's Ridley sea turtle

Much of the final damage is predicated on where the oil goes and what exactly type of oil it is, and both of those questions are still unanswered. The prevailing opinion is that the oil is of the lighter type, not the really heavy stuff like what leaked from the Valdez in Alaska, which would be a relatively good thing, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (pdf) describes it, saying, “Light oils contain moderate concentrations of soluble toxic compounds. Light oils leave a film or layer on intertidal resources with the potential of longterm contamination. Cleanup can be very effective on spills of light oil.”

As far as where the spill is headed, that’s up to the current and winds. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks have the spill staying offshore for a while, which is, as with the type of oil, a relatively good thing. So things would seem to be shaping up, at this early point in what will be the overall life history of spill, to be kind of a best-case scenario. But things could certainly change very quickly.

One of the worst-case scenarios is if the spill gets caught in the right current and heads to Florida, home to very sensitive coral reefs and coastal areas. In fact, a Unified Command was just set up in case the oil does hit Florida. In a bid to pin down more details on just what kind of damage we might see to ecosystems and wildlife, I spoke via e-mail with several experts on various topics.

Coral Reefs, Mangroves, and Seagrass Beds
Dr. Richard E. Dodge, Professor and Dean at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center and Executive Director of the National Coral Reef Institute, says, “Oil entrained in the loop current could be delivered to the coral reefs of South Florida and Southeast Florida, from the Dry Tortugas in the south, throughout the Florida Keys, to Palm Beach in the north. A long duration spill could have toxic substances entering the water column and affecting corals anywhere from mucous production to damaging their reproductive system, to bleaching and mortality.” Dodge says dispersants, now being used to help break up the spill, “should NOT be used in proximity to coral reefs because this will make the oil more toxic and available to corals and the plants and animals that live in coral reefs.”

And if it takes a while before the oil reaches Florida? Could be even worse news, Dr. Dodge says. “If oil arrives during the spawning times of coral in August, this could be highly detrimental to the reproductive success of corals, threatening the next generation on the reef.”

Dr. Dodge is also quick to point out the economic impact loss of such unique habitats would have. “Florida has 84% of the nation's coral reef ecosystems,” Dodge says, “hence it is important to recognize that vital national resources are at stake. It has been estimated in a 2000 study by NOAA that reefs represent an annual economy of over $6 billion for South Florida, as well as over 71,000 jobs.”

Massive amounts of oil could also be disastrous for Florida’s sensitive mangrove forests, home to thousands of animals, from alligators to bobcats. “Mangrove forests serve as nursery grounds for many species of fish and shellfish. They also bind sediment. Loss of these forests would result in the collapse of this type of ecosystem,” Dr. Dodge says.

And if the currents and tides really conspire just right, the oil could infest Florida’s seagrass beds. “If this slick made it up on to the southwest Florida Shelf and was transported in the prevailing current direction to the south, it could end up at the mouth of Florida Bay,” according to Dr. Jim Fourqurean, professor at Florida International University. “This worst-case scenario is not particularly likely – but if it occurs, it will be devastating,” Fourqurean warns.

Due to the complex properties of the bay, the oil “would likely be there for an extended period – maybe even years. Florida Bay averages only 3 feet deep over the 2,000 km2 of the bay, and most of that area is within the boundaries of Everglades National Park. Florida Bay is carpeted with seagrass beds,” Fourqurean explains. “One small piece of good news is that seagrasses themselves are quite resistant to the effects of oil spills, so we would expect loss of seagrasses only in places that oil were pushed in to intertidal areas and stranded for extended periods at low tide.” So the seagrass might be fine, but what about the animals that frequent these beds?

Manatee in Florida

“Oil contains many toxic compounds that could kill most of the important animals that reside in the seagrass beds, including commercially import pink shrimp; valuable game fish like tarpon, bonefish, redfish and seatrout; juvenile spiny lobsters; juvenile fish that use the bay as a nursery; and the wading birds that feed on these animals. Air-breathing manatees and sea turtles would be poisoned and covered with oil, wading birds would be covered ...” and Fourqurean leaves it at that, the implication clear.

Though I’ve said thus far it’s kind of a best-case scenario with the spill, some variables don’t bode well for the survival of fish, according to Dr. David W. Kerstetter, a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center. “Many of the fish species in the Gulf have pelagic (open-water) eggs that float at the surface, where the oil layer congregates,” Kerstetter says. And he points out it doesn’t take much oil to start causing trouble, saying, “Studies have suggested that concentrations of 1 part-per-billion have toxic effects to fish eggs.”

It’s also just plain bad timing, with now “the time of the year in which the western Atlantic population of bluefin tuna congregate in the northen Gulf to spawn, a population which is already at extremely low levels,” Kerstetter points out. “Should the sheen spread and persist, a loss of a whole year's larval fish production in some species is possible.”

“The spill will likely impact sensitive coastal saltmarsh estuary and barrier lagoon systems in the northern Gulf – some reports are that the oil already is there – systems which are important nursery grounds for shrimp, sharks, and many other species of fishes, as well as adult habitat for species such as oysters, redfish (red drum), and sea trout,” Kerstetter says.

And the top-of-the-food-chain fish, the ones targeted by both commercial and recreational fishermen, will also be affected, according to Dr. Kerstetter. “As these pollutants (including the oil dispersant chemicals) are released into the water, they’re likely to be absorbed into the prey species' tissues and then re-absorbed into the tissues of predator species, like tunas and sailfish. We know very little about how some of these substances affect growth, reproduction, and even basic survival for most of these fish species.”

We’re waiting to hear back from experts on how the spill might affect birds, too, and will update soon.

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World Fair Trade Day

Wednesday, May 5, 2010 by Kyle Scribner

Many of our most-trusted companies, from Wal-Mart and GAP to Apple and Microsoft, have been caught using sweatshop-like conditions at some point.

To ensure what we buy hasn’t been produced via a process that takes advantage of and/or hurts people, we have to pay attention, which, admittedly, is hard to do. Our attentions are focused elsewhere, and we just want to be able to do our shopping in a relatively unthinking way.

But with World Fair Trade Day coming up May 8, now is as good a time as ever to think about how what we buy affects others. The day is being celebrated through hundreds of events in more than 70 countries around the world in a bid to create a better life for several million workers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Get started practicing your more conscientious shopping trips by checking out this list of organizations that are 100% committed to fair trade.

And refer to this list of companies that use union labor, which is a good indicator of fair manufacturing processes..

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Kyle Scribner is a born-again nature freak who also happens to be an editor at Captivate Network.

You know that exhilarated feeling you got as a kid when you would go down to the pond to catch frogs? It never really goes away; it’s just dormant. So I'm here to slap a mix of facts and borderline balanced opinion on you, to poke a stick at the nature freak slumbering in us all and maybe get him to once again come out and play.

And we might even learn a few things about the environment as we go.


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About Green Among Gray

How do you commune with nature or become part of the solution to the environmental crisis when you're trapped in a cement-and-glass, gas-guzzling, power-sucking, emissions-spewing metropolis 8 hours (or more) a day? How do you go 'green' in a world of gray?

Actually, there are plenty of ways, and Green Among Gray aims to show high-rise inhabitants how they can help ease the load on the environment and on their minds by exploring natural oases, conservation tips, and other ways to stay green while working in the concrete-built world of the big city.

Look for short updates on the latest environmental news along with periodic longer features on specific places and events that allow big-city workers to get close to nature.