On Pandemics, Pork Chops and Chicken Nuggets

April 26, 2020

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:
E-The Environmental Magazine, 24-Apr, 2020
Fullerton Observer, 25-Apr, 2020
Escondido Grapevine, 29-Apr, 2020
Irvine Community News and Views, 10-May, 2020
Times of San Diego, 11-May, 2020
Voice of OC, 26-May, 2020

Factory farmed animals are a conduit between viruses which arise in wildlife and humans.

I’ve wasted too much time lately combing the news for an answer to a crucial question about pandemics like Covid-19: Are they inevitable?

Newscasters and the scientists, doctors and politicians they interview rarely venture beyond daily counts of the stricken to explain why we have pandemics. I suspect it’s because the answer is harder to stomach than the horror of the pandemic itself.

Animals humans raise for food are typically the intermediary hosts of viruses between the wildlife in which they arise – e.g. bats and wild birds – and humans. Consequently, pandemics are a price we pay for eating animals and otherwise using them.

Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher came close to getting it right during the pithy New Rules segment of his April 10 show when arguing for naming Covid-19 the Chinese virus because it seemingly jumped to humans in China’s “wet markets” where live fish, poultry and mammals – including exotics like bats, raccoon dogs and civet cats – are slaughtered on site to satisfy the palate of some Chinese for fresh and exotic meats.

Maher was correct that Chinese wet markets might be culpable for a number of lethal human virus outbreaks, including SARS coronavirus in 2003 and H7N9 Avian flu in 2013.

However, Maher’s initial foray into the origin of pandemics overlooked the uncomfortable fact that Americans’ insatiable taste for animal meat was at the root of other killer virus outbreaks. The H1N1 swine flu of 2009 emerged from a pig confinement operation in North Carolina and was a mutated descendant of a swine flu virus that sprang from U.S. factory farms in 1998. And, even though Chinese chicken farms are credited with the deadly H5N1 bird flu outbreak of 1997 (which killed 60 percent of infected humans), just five years ago a similar bird flu broke out in U.S farms, prompting the slaughter of tens of millions of chickens and turkeys.

Recall also that the 1918 Spanish flu that killed over 50 million people worldwide sprang from farms in Kansas, possibly via pigs or sheep, before transmitting around the world via WWI U.S. soldiers.

To his credit, Maher subsequently course-corrected in an April 24 New Rules segment, proffering that “factory farming is just as despicable as a wet market and just as problematic for our health” and “torturing animals is what got us into this mess.”

U.S. factory farms provide 99% of Americans’ meat, dairy and eggs and are ideal breeding grounds for infectious diseases because of the crowded (and unspeakably inhumane) conditions in which animals are kept. Hence, an overwhelming preponderance of medically important antimicrobials sold nationally are used in food-producing animals.

A hard to swallow truth: Factory farms are America’s cultural equivalent of China’s wet markets.

Many virus pandemics have much to do with society’s dietary choices. Plants do indeed get viruses, but genetic studies provide no evidence that plant viruses are causative agents of disease in humans. A pandemic from eating lentils and broccoli seems highly unlikely.

Humans readily accept the suffering animals endure to satisfy our appetite for meat, and pandemics are just one of the painful costs to us. Others include cardiovascular disease, diabetes, antibiotic resistance, global warming, rainforest destruction and aquifer depletion.

For those who believe that only meat can provide adequate protein to fuel our brains and bodies, consider that Socrates was vegetarian and Patrik Baboumian, dubbed “strongest man on earth,” is vegan.

An athletics documentary available on Netflix, The Game Changers, is an eye-opening starter for doubters that a plant-based diet can sustain optimal health.

Historically, epidemics and pandemics have led to important advances in public health, like widespread understanding of the germ theory, improved sanitation, penicillin and vaccinations. What will Americans learn from Covid-19?

Will we rethink the decades-long erosion of the social safety net, including lack of universal healthcare and opposition to guaranteeing all workers a living wage? Will we reconsider the true value to society of so-called “unskilled” workers, like supermarket checkers, who put themselves at risk now every time they show up for work? And what does it say about our priorities that meat factories are being forced to continue to operate despite high rates of Covid-19 infections among the workers?

Both history and science tell us that, unless we do something different, the next pandemic is somewhere just around the corner. This is driven home by study findings just published in April of six new coronaviruses discovered in Myanmar bats.

My hope is that the global heartache and societal disruptions from Covid-19 will spur a conversation that reaches deeper than blaming pandemics on wet markets and factory farming, but rather confronts humanity with the very real connection between pandemics and eating animals.


What Do Beer, Oysters, Salt, Air & Tap Water Have in Common?

November 10, 2018

They’re all ways humans are ingesting microplastics

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Shorter versions appeared in:
Los Angeles Daily News, 08-Dec, 2018
Long Beach Press Telegram,
08-Dec, 2018
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin,
08-Dec,, 2018
San Bernardino Sun, 08-Dec, 2018
Whittier Daily News,
08-Dec, 2018
Riverside Press-Enterprise, 08-Dec, 2018
Redlands Daily Facts, 08-Dec, 2018
Pasadena Star-News, 08-Dec, 2018
San Gabriel Valley Tribune, 08-Dec, 2018
OC Register, 09-Dec, 2018 (p. H3)
Escondido Grapevine, 13-Dec, 2018
San Diego Free Press, 14-Dec, 2018
Natural Life Magazine, 16-Dec, 2018
Times of San Diego, 17-Dec, 2018
E-Magazine, 03-Jan, 2019

It was just two decades ago that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast circulating accumulation of plastic debris in the North Pacific, was discovered by accident. Since then, plastic pollution has been found to be ubiquitous in natural environments worldwide, including the open waters and sediments of oceans, lakes and rivers and even in soil and air.

It’s no wonder then that the tissues of wildlife as diverse as whales, seabirds, fish and zooplankton, all which ingest plastic debris, are polluted by plastics. Given that, it would be naïve to think that humans, who share the same global environment and eat at the top of the food chain, are somehow spared contamination.

Though no one has yet measured how much plastic pollution humans might be carrying around, there is plenty of evidence we’re taking the stuff in, by eating, drinking and even just breathing. This is frightening to contemplate because plastics carry potential health risks associated with chemicals both manufactured into them and later picked up from the environment.

Plastics for Dinner?

Discovery of seabird and whale carcasses chock full of visible plastic waste sparked concern that sea creatures consumed by humans might be imbibing plastics too. The broad picture emerging from a plethora of research is that plastic debris is being taken up by sea life throughout the ocean food web, including tiny fish that feed on plankton, fish that feed on smaller fish, shellfish, turtles and dolphins.

Read the rest of this entry »


Plastic Ocean Pollution a Driver of Climate Change?

October 27, 2017

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Versions have appeared:
Escondido Grapevine, 05-Dec, 2017
Fullerton Observer, Mid-Nov, 2017 (p.17)
Algalita Marine Research Foundation Blog, 05-Nov, 2017
Daily Pilot, 03-Nov, 2017
Voice of OC, 02-Nov, 2017
San Diego Free Press, 02-Nov., 2017
Times of San Diego, 31-Oct, 2017
E-The Environmental Magazine, 27-Oct, 2017

Tiny lanternfish is vital to carbon sequestration in ocean.

Though burning fossil fuels is the primary cause of global warming, fossil fuels could also be driving climate change via a completely different mechanism involving ocean plastic debris and tiny, bioluminescent fish living hundreds of meters beneath the ocean’s surface.

Lanternfish (aka myctophids) are only a few inches long typically but so ubiquitous that they account for over half the ocean’s total fish-mass. They are vital to the ocean’s ability to sequester more carbon than all the world’s forests do on land through a daily mass migration that plays out in all seven seas.

By day, lanternfish avoid predators in deep, dimly lit waters, but they ascend nightly to the surface to gorge on carbon-rich plankton before descending back down where they deposit their carbon-rich poop. They also sequester carbon when eaten by larger fish.

Carbon sequestration by lanternfish is central to the overall role of marine environments in reducing human-caused CO2 emissions in the atmosphere – by an estimated 20-35 percent.

Thus, anything harmful to lanternfish could hinder the ocean’s capacity to act as a carbon sink. Alarming evidence that small bits of floating plastic debris resemble the plankton lanternfish feast on could spell trouble for them and, consequently, the climate. Read the rest of this entry »


Greening Your Wardrobe

September 29, 2016

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:
Natural Life Magazine, Oct issue, 2016
San Diego Free Press, 04 Oct, 2016
EarthTalk, 05 Oct, 2016

apparel-clothingWhat typically comes to mind when contemplating our personal environmental footprint is the energy efficiency of the car we drive, how religiously we recycle, and maybe whether or not we have a water thirsty lawn. However, everything we do and own has impacts on the environment, and that includes the choices we make in dressing ourselves.

This point was driven home in a smart little book published in 1997 titled, “Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things,” which describes the planetary impacts of everyday material goods. One chapter details what goes into producing a wardrobe basic, the cotton/polyester blend T-shirt.

A few highlights include the overseas extraction of the crude oil from which polyester is synthesized, the energy and pesticide intensive process of growing and harvesting cotton, and transporting milled fabrics abroad and back again so they can be sewn into T-shirts by cheap foreign labor.

From this T-shirt saga emerges a simple truth: The T-shirts with the least environmental impact are the ones you already own, or maybe ones purchased at a secondhand shop.

Nonetheless, clothes do wear out and wardrobe adjustments become necessary when we take on new jobs or sports, change weight or treat ourselves to the latest fashion. So the question remains how to make apparel selections which better protect both the environment and the people involved in the production process. The good news is that there are already more sustainable clothing options on the market, plus there is game-changing movement within the apparel industry to provide consumers with a point of purchase “index” conveying the environmental footprint of items being offered. Read the rest of this entry »


Demand Sustainably Produced Cut Flowers

July 7, 2016

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:
E-Magazine’s EarthTalk, 09 Jul, 2016
PopularResistance.org, 15 Jul, 2016
San Diego Free Press, 21 Jul, 2016
Natural Life Magazine, 27 Jul, 2016
Life.ca, 27 Jul, 2016

Photo: Ian Muttoo, Wikimedia Commons

Ian Muttoo, Wikimedia Commons

Flowers add color and gaiety to any special occasion and are a time-honored way to say thank you or beautify living spaces. However, cut flowers have become a multi-billion dollar global trade industry with a not so pretty underbelly rooted in where and how they are grown.

Historically in the U.S., flowers were first grown in greenhouses in Eastern states and later in Western and Southern states when commercial air transportation made preserving freshness possible. In the 1970’s, the U.S. grew more cut flowers than it imported, only a small fraction originated in Colombia.

However, new market forces were unleashed in 1991 when the U.S. suspended import duties on flowers from Colombia to curb growing of coca for cocaine and to bolster the Colombian economy. By 2003, the U.S. was importing more flowers from Colombia than were produced domestically. The combination of cheap unskilled labor (largely female) and ideal, year-round growing conditions created an explosive market for Colombian floriculture.

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Human Activity Ushers in New Geologic Epoch

February 14, 2016

(and it’s not very pretty)

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:
Fullerton Observer, Mid Mar, 2016, p. 18
EarthTalk, 26 Feb, 2016
PopularResistance.org, 22 Feb, 2016
San Diego Free Press, 19 Feb, 2016
OB Rag, 19 Feb, 2016

Earth's history recorded in sedimentary stratifications

Earth’s history recorded in sedimentary stratifications

By mid-twentieth century, humans had altered the Earth to such an extent as to mark the start of a new geologic epoch named the Anthropocene, concluded an international consortium of researchers in a January issue of the preeminent journal Science.

Scientists divide Earth’s 4.5 billion year history into so-called epochs or time units based on major shifts in the composition and state of the planet as recorded in distinct stratifications in rocks, sediments and glacier ice. Previous transitions from one geologic epoch to the next were triggered by either cyclical drivers of climate change, like variations in the Earth’s orbit or solar radiation, or irregular events like volcanic eruptions.  The most recent epoch for example, the Holocene, spanned ~12,000 years and was ushered in by a period of interglacial global warming.

Transition to the Anthropocene, in contrast, is driven by an unprecedented rate of change to the global environment caused by a convergence of three human factors: rapid rises in population growth, technological development and resources consumption, starting about 1950. So although Homo sapiens first emerged as a species about 200,000 years ago, it wasn’t until last century that their numbers and impact were sufficient to drive the permanent changes we now see to the Earth’s system.

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Youthful skin comes at cost to ocean food web

May 29, 2014

Time to eliminate plastic micro-bead exfoliants

By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:
Surf City Voice, 29-May, 2014
E-Magazine Blog, 29-May, 2014
Fullerton Observer, Early June, 2014, p. 9
Algalita Marine Research Blog, 04-June, 2014
Southern Sierran, 18-June, 2014
San Diego Free Press,
25-June, 2014
Natural Life Magazine, July/August, 2014

Biodegradable alternatives to plastic micro-beads

Biodegradable alternatives to plastic micro-beads (Wikimedia Commons)

The beauty industry hits hard on the importance of frequent exfoliation to keep skin looking younger and healthy. Spherical plastic micro-bead scrubbers, no larger than a half millimeter, have been introduced into hundreds of skin care products in recent decades, but scientists are discovering that the ocean food web, and maybe human health, could be imperiled as a result.

As babies, skin cells are replaced every two weeks, but by age 50 the turnover rate has slowed to six weeks or longer, fostering wrinkles and other unwelcome signs of aging. Products containing plastic micro-beads profess to speed up cell rejuvenation, and their popularity signals that consumers have bought into the promise of exfoliating your way to a more youthful look. Whether or not such products deliver on this promise, scientists have discovered that these innocent-looking plastic micro-beads are insidious little transporters of chemical pollutants into lakes, streams and oceans and maybe onto our dinner plates.

Micro-beads are usually made of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), and like other plastics, they’re thought to persist in the environment for a hundred years or more. They’re added to facial scrubs, body washes, soap bars, toothpastes and even sunscreens and designed to be washed down the drain. However, micro-beads commonly escape waste treatment plants and pollute bodies of water, because the plants aren’t designed to eliminate them or because wastewater is diverted directly to local waterways in heavier rains.

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What are We Feeding Fido, and Why?

February 26, 2014

Food for Thought

Dog Food Bowl 2By Sarah “Steve” Mosko

Appeared:

  • San Diego Free Press, 20 Sept, 2014
  • Natural Life Magazine, May/June, 2014

My journey into the world of dog food ingredients began when my two-year-old mutts, Olive and Dexi, embarked on a hunger strike of sorts. They’d circle around their food bowls a foot away, sniffing all the while, only to walk away in protest before getting close enough to really get a good look. It felt as though they thought I might be trying to poison them, or at least pull a fast one of some sort.

I served what I thought were top-tier kibble and wet foods, never skimping on price and offering plenty of variety to avert boredom. I changed commercial foods numerous times, trying every ilk of so-called natural lines marketed as organic, grain-free and the like, yet still my offerings were snubbed. I’ll never know if they actually conspired to get my attention, but get my attention they did when they’d go two days without eating a bite, ostensibly giving in only when hunger forced them to.

I became convinced Olive and Dexi were rejecting the meals based on odor, inspiring my 3-part investigation into dog foods: first, to understand the canine sense of smell; second, to master commercial dog food labeling; and third, to discern what canine diet might really be best. I’ve concluded that the answer to the latter might not be as simple as one would wish.

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Mid-Ocean Plastics Cleanup Schemes: Too Little Too Late?

May 27, 2013

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Plastic debris from N. Pacific Gyre.
(Algalita Marine Research Institute)

Imagine using a thimble to empty a bathtub, with the faucet still running. That’s how experts on ocean plastics pollution generally see schemes focused on extracting the debris from the open ocean instead of strategies to prevent plastic waste from getting there in the first place.

Interest in methods to rid the oceans of plastic debris is motivated by very real threats to the entire ocean food web. The “North Pacific Garbage Patch” is the most studied of the five subtropical gyres, gigantic whirlpools where waste is picked up and concentrated by slow-swirling currents. There, plastic debris already outweighs zooplankton, tiny creatures at the base of the food web, by a factor of 36:1, according to the latest trawls by the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach, CA.

Subtropical gures

The 5 subtropical gyres.

Conventional plastics do not biodegrade on land or in water, but become brittle in sunlight and break apart into ever smaller bits of plastic, still containing toxic substances introduced during manufacture – like phthalates, bisphenol-A and flame retardants. Plastics also attract and concentrate persistent oily pollutants present in seawater. So plastic debris not only threatens sea creatures through entanglement or by clogging their digestive tracts, but also introduces dangerous chemicals into the food chain.

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Plastic Debris Delivers Triple Toxic Whammy, Ocean Study Shows

January 22, 2013

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Published in:

  • E-the Environmental Magazine, 11-Mar & 07-Aug, 2013
  • Fullerton Observer, Early Mar, 2013, p.11
  • Southern Sierran News Blog, 05-Feb, 2013
  • Algalita Marine Research Blog, 02-Feb, 2013
  • Surf City Voice, 30-Jan, 2013
  • Santa Monica Daily Press, 27-Jan, 2013

nurdles 7While plastic refuse on land is a familiar eyesore as litter and a burden on our landfills, in the marine environment it can be lethal to sea creatures by way of ingestion or entanglement. Now, an important new study adds to a growing body of evidence that ocean plastic debris is also a threat to humans because plastics are vehicles for introducing toxic chemicals of three sources into the ocean food web.

Background
Two of the sources are intrinsic to the plastic material itself, introduced during manufacturing, and have been described in previous studies. The first is the very building blocks of plastic polymers, called monomers, which are linked during polymerization. However, polymerization is never complete, always leaving some monomers unattached and free to migrate out into whatever medium the plastic comes in contact, like foods/beverages or the guts of a sea creature that mistook it for food. Some monomers are known to be inherently toxic, like the carcinogen vinyl chloride that makes up polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, or the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A (BPA) that makes up polycarbonate plastics.

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Bioplastics: Are They the Solution?

October 8, 2012

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Published in:

Throwaway living debuts after WWII
(Photo: Peter Stackpole, 1955)

Bioplastics are simply plastics derived from renewable biomass sources, like plants and microorganisms, whereas conventional plastics are synthesized from non-renewable fossil fuels, either petroleum or natural gas. It’s a common misconception, however, that a bioplastic necessarily breaks down better in the environment than conventional plastics.

Bioplastics are nevertheless marketed as being better for the environment, but how do they really compare?

The Problems with Petroleum-Based Plastics
The push to develop bioplastics emerges from alarming realities starting with the staggering quantity of plastics being produced, over 20 pounds a month for every U.S. resident, according to the latest numbers from the American Chemistry Council.

Conventional plastics do not biodegrade (defined below) within any meaningful human timescale – they just break apart into smaller plastic fragments. Also, the overall recycling rates for plastics remain fairly low, eight percent in the United States and 24 percent in the European Union in 2010 for example, in large part because plastic products contain unique proprietary blends of additives which prevent recycling of mixed batches of products back into the original products. So, unlike glass and aluminum which can be recycled in a closed loop, most plastics recycling is considered “down-cycling” into lower quality, hybrid-plastic end-products, like lumber or clothing, which aren’t recycled again. This means that, except for the fraction of plastic that is combusted for energy production, all plastics eventually end up as trash, either in landfills or as litter.

Petroleum and natural gas are actually organic substances, but why plastics synthesized from them do not biodegrade is straightforward. The exceptionally strong carbon-carbon bonds created to form the backbone of plastic polymers do not occur naturally in nature so are foreign to microorganisms which readily eat up other organic materials.

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Greener Laundry: Avoid Polyester

November 1, 2011

Greening Laundry Day: Avoid Polyester Fabrics
by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in:

  • Algalita Marine Research Blog, 20 Aug ’12
  • Natural Life Magazine, Mar/Apr issue 2012
  • Surf City Voice as “Microplastics: Avoid polyester fabrics to help prevent ocean pollution,” 06 Nov 11
  • Culture Change, 05 Nov 11

A single polyester garment can shed >1900 plastic microfibers per wash

If you have already switched to an eco-friendly laundry detergent, as many people do to contribute less to water pollution, you might be surprised to learn that the pollution you generate on wash day has as much to do with the kind of fabrics your clothes, bedding and towels are made of as the detergent you wash them in. Recent studies have revealed that a single garment made of polyester can shed innumerable tiny fibers into the wash water, and those fibers are finding their way to the ocean. The pollution they cause is worsened by the fact that, like plastic materials in general, polyester attracts oily pollutants in seawater so is a vehicle for the transfer of potentially dangerous chemicals into the food web when the fibers are ingested by sea creatures.

Although we don’t usually think of polyester fabrics as plastic per se, polyester is nonetheless a plastic material synthesized from crude oil and natural gas. And, like other plastics, polyester is a long polymer chain, making it non-biodegradable in any practical human scale of time, especially in the ocean because of the cooler temperatures.

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Huntington Next to Ban Bags?

August 14, 2011

Huntington Beach Next City to Ban Plastic Bags?
By Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD

Appeared in: Surf City Voice, 14 Aug 2011

On August 1st, Long Beach became the thirteenth jurisdiction within California to ban single-use plastic carryout bags at supermarkets and large retailers. Huntington Beach (HB) could soon join that list if HB City Council members Connie Boardman, Devin Dwyer and Joe Shaw can convince other council members.

A proposal to develop an ordinance to ban flimsy, disposable plastic carryout bags is on the Monday, August 15 HB City Council meeting agenda.

If a HB ordinance were to be modeled after the Long Beach one, it would also include a 10 cent customer fee for each paper bag dispensed, as the goal is not to convert to disposable paper bags but rather to encourage use of reusable bags which can be used over 100 times.

The Long Beach ban took effect after a pivotal unanimous California Supreme Court decision on July 14 which eases the way for local plastic bag bans by ruling that the City of Manhattan Beach did not have to complete a lengthy study of the environmental impact of disposable paper bags before baring retailers from dispensing plastic ones.

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Low-Carbon Footprint Camping

July 23, 2010

 Sun recharges your favorite e-gadgets

by  Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Appeared in:

  • E-Magazine Blog as “Camping with Gadgets,” 13 Aug 2012
  • Vall-E-Vents Sierra Club Newsletter, June 2011
  • Fullerton Observer, Aug 2010, p. 10
  • Surf City Voice, 21 July 2010

Recharge solar lanterns and small electronics with solar rechargers

Does the prospect of spending a weekend away from your favorite e-gadgets (cell phone, laptop, iPod or PDA) stir up separation anxiety?  Around our house we’ve dubbed this e-angst, and it can kill enthusiasm for an otherwise welcome family camping vacation.

For teens or adults similarly infected with e-angst, a diversity of devices are on the market which let you bring your e-gadgets along with you camping and also trim your carbon footprint because they utilize only sunshine for power.

Solar chargers
An assortment of portable solar-powered chargers is available that adapt to virtually any handheld electronic appliance including digital cameras and GPS units.  Most rely on photovoltaic silicon cell technology akin to what is used on rooftop solar panels.  Many are small enough to fit in a back pocket or certainly a glove box so can travel with you virtually anywhere.  The cost is as little as $15 on up to $150 depending on the capacity.  Because rechargeable batteries are incorporated, gadgets can be recharged even after the sun goes down.  Small electronics generally charge in 2-4 hours.

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100 Energy Servants

June 16, 2010

Americans, with 100 ‘energy servants’ each, share blame in Gulf oil spill

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko

Appeared in:

  • Santa Monica Daily Press as “America’s Addition to Oil Caused Gulf of Mexico Spill,” 11 Nov 2010
  • E-Magazine’s Our Planet Weekly as “Decoding Just How  Power is Needed to Support the Typical American Lifestyle,” Nov 5  2010
  • Southern Sierran, Jul-Aug 2010
  • Fullerton Observer, p. 2, July 2010
  • Surf City Voice, June 16, 2010

Gulf-oil-soaked pelicans await clean up. Photo credit IBRRC

There’s no shortage of finger-pointing as the now worst oil spill in U.S. history continues its assault on the Gulf Coast’s ecology and economy.

A USA TODAY/Gallop Poll taken in late May, for example, found that 73 percent of Americans feel that BP (British Petroleum) is doing a ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ job of handling the crisis, and 60 percent evaluated the federal government’s response in the same unfavorable terms.

Confronted with images of birds swathed in crude oil and prognostications that the Gulf region’s fishing and tourism industries might never recover, the urge to form a posse, so to speak, to rout out those responsible and hold them accountable is all too human.

But are we Americans shocked enough yet by the enormity of this calamity to own up to our personal role in it?  After all, it’s ultimately our nation’s energy-intense lifestyle and attachment to fossil fuels that gives companies like BP and our government the implicit go-ahead to pursue oil at the risk of the very kind of disaster now ensuing.

Unless you’re a physicist or energy wonk of some sort, hearing that the average yearly per capita energy consumption in the United States in 2008 was 337 million Btu probably tells you little about your energy footprint. Knowing that a Btu is an energy standard equivalent to 252 calories – about what’s contained in a Snickers candy bar – is probably of little help either.

That’s why Professor of Physics Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College has been giving demonstrations for the last decade which impart a real gut-level, hands-on feel for the energy it takes to support the typical American lifestyle.

His demonstration is simple but ingenious. A volunteer is asked to turn a hand crank which, through a geared system, drives an electric generator connected to two 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

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Serving Plastics For Dinner?

March 10, 2010

Unhealthy and avoidable

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, Ph.D.

Appeared in:

  • E-Magazine’s weekly newsletter ‘Our Planet’ as: Consuming Chemicals – Rethinking What We Heat, Serve and Eat, June 2, 2010.
  • Surf City Voice, April 30, 2010.
  • Southern Sierran, April 2010 as:  When You Ask “What’s For Dinner?” You’d Be Surprised How Often the Answer is “Plastic”
  • The Orange Coast Voice, March 23, 2010
©iStockphoto.com/Lloret

What do breast milk, food cans, microwave popcorn, and fast-food French fry boxes have in common with meat, fish and dairy products?  They’re all avenues of human ingestion of potentially harmful chemicals associated with everyday plastics.

Although the jury is still out on what levels of exposure are unsafe, it is indisputable that we are all literally consuming chemicals from plastics daily.

Biomonitoring projects – like the 2005 BodyBurden study of cord blood in neonates and the Mind, Disrupted investigation of blood and urine in adults representing the learning & developmental disabilities community just published in February 2010 – consistently find neurotoxic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in common plastics among the substances routinely tainting human tissues.  Although diet is not the only route of exposure, it is considered a major one.

Given that developing fetuses and young children are most vulnerable to environmental toxins, understanding how exposure occurs through ordinary diets, and how to avoid it, has become a growing societal concern.

Three constituents of common plastics that find their way into food or drinks are described below, all linked to ill health effects in humans and lab animals.  In the Mind, Disrupted study, the subjects universally tested positive for all three: bisphenol-A, brominated flame retardants, and perfluorinated compounds.  The variety of avenues into the human diet is surprising.

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No Such Thing as a Green Lawn

December 10, 2009
ciStockphoto.com/dbuffon

©iStockphoto.com/dbuffoon

by Sarah (Steve) Mosko, PhD.
Appeared in:
  • El Cuervo de Orange, Feb 14, 2012
  • Vall-E-Vents, May 2010.
  • E-Magazine’s ‘Our Planet Weekly,’  April 8, 2010.
  • Fullerton Observer, early March, 2010, p. 17.
  • Orange Coast Voice, Dec. 7, 2009.

Which consumes more fossil fuels, lawn maintenance with gas-powered tools or lawn watering? For residents of Southern California, the correct answer is watering because of the energy it takes to transport water to the region.

Southern California (SoCal) is a semi-arid desert. Rainfall averages only 15 inches per year, for example, in the Los Angeles area.  Local water sources have fallen far short of meeting the region’s water needs for more than a century.

With 2/3 of the state’s rainfall in Northern California and 2/3 of the water demand in SoCal, the State deals with this imbalance by pumping in half of SoCal’s water supply from sources hundreds of miles away, the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Water-Electricity Relationship

Piping water long distances is costly in terms of electricity, especially water imported from the Delta which has to be pumped uphill 2,000 ft to get over the Tehachapi Mountains.

In a first ever analysis of the energy embedded in bringing potable water to residential faucets and hoses in SoCal, a 2005 Calif Energy Commission analysis calculated 11,111 kWh/MG  (kilowatt hours per million gallons), three times costlier than in Northern California. Most of the electricity is for water transportation, much less for water treatment and maintaining water pressure. Every 100 gallons of imported water eats up enough electricity to keep a 100 W bulb lit for 11 hours.

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Suburban Habitat Renewal

July 1, 2009

Appeared in:

Suburban Habitat Restoration: One Backyard at a Time
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Yards certified through the National Wildlife Federation can post this sign.

Yards certified through the National Wildlife Federation can post this sign.

Whether you fret over dwindling rainforests or attribute disappearance of neighborhood cats to displaced coyotes, most of us recognize loss of wildlife habitats as a growing environmental concern.

As an alternative to hand-wringing, the National Wildlife Federation offers ordinary citizens the means to take action by establishing a Certified Wildlife Habitat in their own backyard. It’s not only enjoyable but very easy. I know because I did it in a matter of weeks despite starting out a gardening illiterate unable to name one in ten plants in my own yard.

Here’s how the program works. A yard has to qualify in all five areas outlined below, but each offers a wide range of options and only one to three is required per category. Then there’s a two-page checklist to fill out – works on the honor system – and a $15 processing fee. That’s it.

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Risky Nanotechnology

April 1, 2009

Appeared in:

  • Vall-E-Vents, July 2010.
  • Fullerton Observer, May 2009, page 10
  • Orange County Progressive as Don’t Worry About Swine Flu When You Can Worry About NanotechMay 2009
  • Orange Coast Voice newspaper blog, April 2009

Alarms Sound Over Safety of Nanotechnology
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Multi-walled carbon nanotubes exhibit unique properties. Photo courtesy of PEN.

Multi-walled carbon nanotubes exhibit unique properties. Photo courtesy of PEN.

For the nine in ten Americans who know next to nothing about nanotechnology (NT), there is little time to waste in getting up to speed because, ready or not, the ‘NT revolution’ is well underway with new nano-engineered consumer products entering the market weekly.

Another reason, as voiced by consumer protection, health, and environmental organizations, is that NT products are being sold without adequate safety testing and government oversight.

The actual number of NT products in commerce is unknown because there is no labeling or reporting requirement.  However, over 800 have been tabulated by the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies (PEN), an online inventory of manufacturer-identified NT goods funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.  In 2007, at least $147 billion in global manufactured goods incorporated NT, encompassing such varied products as cosmetics, clothing, food, food packaging, and dietary supplements.  PEN estimates that figure will reach $2.6 trillion by 2014.

Nanotech Basics

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Is Your Coffee Green?

January 1, 2008

Appeared in Orange Coast Voice newspaper January 2008, page 11.

Is Your Coffee Green?
How to find your eco-responsible coffee shop

by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Not the winner: Starbucks does not report percentage of coffee grown without synthetic chemicals.

Not the winner: Starbucks does not report percentage of coffee grown without synthetic chemicals.

It takes 12 coffee trees to support a 2-cup-a-day coffee habit, according to the Sightline Institute, a non-profit research center in Seattle. And not all coffee is created equal from an environmental standpoint.

People who frequent specialty coffee stores seek a perfect brew served up in a connoisseur’s ambiance. If you are one of them, but also care how eco-friendly your cup of java is, you might want to know how different establishments stack up environmentally. A little background on how coffee is grown and labeled is essential.

Coffee Talk: The dizzying selection that entices the gourmet coffee drinker is every bit linked to the varying conditions under which coffee is cultivated. Read the rest of this entry »


Distress Calls From Ocean

January 1, 2007

Appeared in:

  • Vall-E-Vents, suppl. to Southern Sierran, March 2010.
  • Sierra Club – San Fernando Valley chapter newsletter January 2008.
  • Orange Coast Voice newspaper as The Ocean Cries Out: Under attack on all fronts, March 2007, page 8.
  • Southern Sierran newspaper January 2007.
oceanturtle

Illustration by Willis Simms.

Distress Calls from the Ocean
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

When one tugs at a single thing in nature,
he finds it is attached to the rest of the world.
— John Muir

Whether you are a career fisherman, weekend angler, surfer, snorkeler, skinny dipper, fish dinner connoisseur, or simply a never-gets-wet admirer of the ocean’s majesty, there’s nothing but bad news coming from recent assessments of the ocean’s health.

The scope and severity of the ills that experts report have made commonplace the phrase “collapse” in reference to the global loss of sea life and ecosystems. The assaults that appear responsible all stem from human activities, including over-fishing,  deforestation, overdevelopment of coastlines, overuse of pesticides  and fertilizers, oil spills, and general use of the ocean as a dumping ground for sewage, industrial chemicals and other human wastes. What follows is a brief look at some of the tragic changes scientists are reporting.1-3 Read the rest of this entry »


Plastics in the Food Chain

September 1, 2005

Appeared in Vall-E-Vents, the San Fernando Valley Sierra Club Newsletter, Sept., 2005.

Plastics in the Food Chain
(#3 of the Plastic Plague Series)
by Sarah S. Mosko, Ph.D.

Japanese researchers suggest that plastic debris is a transporter of toxic chemicals into the marine food chain. Illustration by Willis Simms.

Japanese researchers suggest that plastic debris is a transporter of toxic chemicals into the marine food chain. Illustration by Willis Simms.

Plastics are petroleum products that never biodegrade…they just break up into smaller and smaller fragments of plastic.

Worldwide plastics production has grown to over 150 million tons/year, and lots of it finds its way into our oceans. Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation in Long Beach, Calif. has trawled the surface waters of the N. Pacific central gyre, a Texas-sized whirlpool of ocean debris sometimes referred to as the Pacific Garbage Patch. He compared the weight of plastic fragments to that of zooplanktons. Zooplanktons are tiny animal planktons at the bottom of the aquatic food chain and a prime food source for a myriad of sea creatures.

Quite alarmingly, Captain Moore found that plastics outweighed zooplanktons by a factor of 6-to-1.1 Even off the Southern California coastline, plastics were found to outweigh zooplanktons 2.5 to 1.2 Since fish, turtles, jellies, seabirds and other sea creatures are not equipped to distinguish plastics from real food, plastics have become a routine part of the marine food chain. Microscopic bits of plastic are even being incorporated into plankton,3 showing that plastics have entered the very bottom of our food chain.

Adding to the alarm are the findings of Japanese researchers suggesting that plastic debris is a transporter of toxic chemicals into the marine food chain. Because plastics are petroleum-based, they are oily and so attract oily toxins like PCBs and DDE (PCBs are a family of toxic, persistent chemicals previously used in electrical equipment, and DDE is a breakdown product of the now banned pesticide DDT). The study focused on plastic resin pellets, the pearl-sized materials that are melted down to form plastic products. The pellets were found to accumulate PCBs and DDE at levels up to one million times their concentrations in the surrounding seawater.

Oily toxins are stored generally in fatty tissues and consequently get concentrated as they are passed up the food chain (plankton are eaten by jellyfish, salmon eat the jellyfish, you serve salmon for dinner). The potential threat to humans eating at the top of the food chain is obvious. We don’t know yet how big a role plastic ocean debris plays in the elevated levels of PCBs, DDE and other toxins now commonly measured in human tissues. The studies needed to assess this simply have not been done. However, two things are abundantly clear – our oceans are turning into cesspools of plastic trash because of human negligence, and we will eventually eat everything we throw into the sea. We don’t need new studies to tell us this!

1Moore et al.Marine Poll. Bull., 42, 2001.
2Moore et al. Marine Poll. Bull., 44, 2002.
3Thompson et al. Science 304, 2004.
4Mato et al. Environ. Sci. Bull. 35, 2001.

To participate in a California-based statewide plastics reduction campaign, contact Earth Resource Foundation or call (949) 645-5163.


Plastic Plague

May 1, 2005

Versions of this article appeared in:

  • Orange Coast Voice, December 2006, page 9.
  • San Mateo County Renews, Spring 2006.
  • Southern Sierran, August 2005.
  • Sierra Club – San Fernando Valley chapter newsletter, May 2005.

The Plastic Plague: From a “fix it” to a “throw away” society
(#1 of the Plastic Plague series)
by Sarah S. Mosko Ph.D.

It’s getting harder and harder to find things that aren’t made of plastic. You can even get potato chips now in a plastic bottle to go with that plastic bottle of water. We have been made to think that plastics are indispensable, even good for us. Since WWII we have made a complete about-face from a “fix it and make it do” to a “use it once and toss it” society, with plastics playing a starring role.

The percentage of plastic that is recycled is low compared to the amount that is generated.

The percentage of plastic that is recycled is low compared to the amount that is generated.

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