Month: November 2012

STOP Keystone XL!

(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Say No, Obama

Today, concerned citizens led by environmentalists from, Sierra Club, Greenpeace US, etc., will rally in Washington D.C. to protest the President to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Just a year ago, President Obama denied TransCanada, a Canadian oil and gas company, permission to build a 1700 mile stretch of underground pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas, on the basis that it needed to fully assess both health and environmental impacts of the project. Two months ago, TransCanada resubmitted its proposal providing an alternative route for its pipeline, one that “minimize(s) the disturbance of land and sensitive resources” in Nebraska. By early next year, President Obama will make his final decision regarding this permit, and this time, pundits predict, he won’t have a compelling reason to stop Keystone XL.

The Keystone XL pipeline would traverse seven Mid-western states, crossing sensitive ecosystems. Environmentalists fear toxic spills from the pipeline into waterways and habited land. In 2010, over a million gallons of diluted bitumen, a mix of tar sands bitumen and liquid chemicals, spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River due to a leaking Canadian pipeline. Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is not only far more difficult to clean up than traditional oil, but it contains chemical additives, increasing its toxicity. In fact, it has been over two years and the cleanup of the Kalamazoo river system is still incomplete. Environmentalists worry about excess amounts of waste water generated during tar sands’ extraction process. They worry about the environmental injustices against Canadian indigenous populations and against Americans residing along the pipeline. But the biggest concern for environmentalists is increasing our dependence on a nonrenewable energy source that releases 3x  more CO2 emissions than crude oil. Although President Obama’s Copenhagen pledges for carbon emission reduction were not passed by Congress, his policies for supporting developments in natural gas, high fuel efficiency standards, and other emission reduction technologies did nonetheless put us on track for achieving those targets. But if he approves Keystone XL, we backtrack on the progress made on carbon emission reductions. Based on a report by the Canadian environmental ministry, by 2020, greenhouse gases from the oil and gas sector will have increased by one third of 2005 levels due to the extraction of tar sands, despite other reductions.

Despite the wake-up call from Hurricane Sandy, with no currently effective national climate change policy, President Obama likely will not deny Keystone XL on the basis of carbon emission reductions. Duke Professor and former American Diplomat Stephen R. Kelly argues that Keystone XL pipeline should be approved as it will increase our energy security. But the U.S has significantly decreased its reliance on “unstable” oil in the past decade, from 27% of our oil imports coming from the Persian Gulf in 1993 to just 18% in 2010. In fact, for the first time since 1949, U.S became a net exporter of oil. And with its domestic oil and natural gas production, U.S is on the path to becoming “the world’s top energy producer by 2020”. So regardless of whether Keystone XL is approved or not, we have firmly secured our energy resources. Moreover, misconceptions that Keystone XL pipeline will reduce American oil prices due to increased oil supply available to U.S consumers continue to be circulated. However, allowing Canadian private companies supply access through the U.S does not equate to American rights to that oil. If profitable to export its oil to other foreign markets like China’s, now accessible through the Gulf, Canadian oil companies will rightly do so.

Move forward

Arguments for and against Keystone XL have been played out in the past, in the 1960s over the Trans-Alaska pipeline and then in the 1990s over oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Environmentalists’ rhetoric stresses health and environmental damage while industrialists depict it as critical for the economy and decreasing foreign energy dependency. But this time, rather than debating over these repeatedly unresolved arguments, we need to raise alarm on the implications of Keystone XL. Keystone XL sets a major precedent on how our nation will address climate change moving forward. Despite numerous bills issued in Congress, there remains a perpetual gridlock on the passage of any substantial climate change policy.We’ve only begun to realize that we need to take a whole different approach to reducing our GHG emissions. For example, President Obama’s CAFE standards have been major successful climate change initiatives under the pretense of “reducing our dependence on foreign oil”. Framing climate change measures under energy policy, by improving energy efficiency or investing in renewable sources, might just be our saving grace. But if President Obama signs the Keystone XL permit, he in effect curtails most arguments for investing in costly but necessary renewable projects. If passed, we get on the path that divests resources away from renewable energy, delaying critical carbon-free solutions. To keep moving forward as a nation in regards to reducing our impact on the global climate and our future, we must first to stop Keystone XL.


Electronic Waste Disposal

A worker rummages through electronic waste for the purpose of salvaging metals and other materials for resale in Guiyu, south China’s Guangdong province, Friday 01 July 2005. Electronic waste, illegally imported here from developed countries, is causing severe environmental damage and exposing workers to highly toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Source: EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS

Over the last decade, quality of life and owning electronics have become inextricably linked.  As a result, the production and sale of electronic goods has skyrocketed worldwide.  Due to rapid advances in technology, there is a much wider range of products available and new versions of existing goods are being launched constantly.  Therefore, the rate at which electronics are being discarded (and sheer volume of waste) has increased drastically as well.  This electronic waste, or e-waste, is being exported to developing countries where crude ‘recycling’ techniques expose both the workers and the environment to dangerous chemicals.

So, How Much E-Waste is Actually out There?

In the United States, 3 million tons of e-waste (computers, printers, phones, cameras, televisions, refrigerators, etc.) is produced every year.  Globally, e-waste generation is growing by 40 million tons per year (1).  This is equivalent to filling around 15,000 football fields six feet deep with waste!  As unimaginable huge as this figure already is, it is increasing at an alarming rate.

In 2020, it is estimated that in China (which is currently the largest dumping ground), e-waste from computers will have jumped by 200-400% and mobile phones will increase by 700%.  In India, computer waste is predicted to rise by 500% and e-waste from mobile phones will be an astounding 18 times higher than current levels (yes, that is an 1800% jump) (1).  While some state-of-the-art electronic recycling facilities do exist, the majority of this e-waste is being shipped (legally and illegally) to developing countries.

E-Waste in Developing Countries

Due to increased safety rules in Western countries, it is 10 times cheaper to export e-waste to developing countries than it is to locally recycle (3).  Though some e-waste exportation is legal, a large portion is illegal.  Electronics exported under the category of ‘used’ or ‘second-hand’ goods are not subject to any restrictions, and numerous other loopholes, export schemes, and corrupt officials have been discovered (4).  In 2005, inspections of 18 European seaports found that approximately 47% of exported waste was illegal and that 23,000 metric tons of e-waste was illegally shipped from the United Kingdom (5).

Common e-waste destinations include China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, Nigeria, Ghana, and Brazil, just to name a few.  China is by far the most popular dumping ground and receives an estimated 70% of the 20-50 million tons to global e-waste produced yearly (3).  The e-waste industry employs 150,000 people in Guiyu, China, while the scrap yards in Delhi boast 25,000 workers and 20,000 tons of yearly waste (5). These countries create a ‘perfect storm’ for e-waste dumping: cheap and desperate labor with no added cost for health or safety regulations.

Human Health and Environmental Issues

 It is an undeniable fact that e-waste in “backyard” recycling operations poses a major threat to both human health and the environment.  Valuable metals such as gold and copper can be extracted from electronics, but this recovery process is often done in the cheapest and most unsafe way.

Plastics, which contain heavy metals and flame retardants, are burned in open piles and release deadly dioxin and furans.  Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) are broken with hammers to remove copper, a process that also releases toxic phosphor dust.  Circuit boards are literally cooked over open flames or in shallow pans, exposing workers to lead fumes.  Acid baths are used to extract gold from circuit board chips, spewing even more toxic gases into the air (6).  These processes release a wide variety of heavy metals including lead, cadmium, and mercury into the air, soil, and water (5).

Despite the obviously toxic nature of the most common ‘recycling’ techniques, over 90% of e-waste landfills or dumps have no environmental standards (3).  Unbelievably, Nigeria does not have a single legally licensed landfill despite having a population of 115 million and being a popular e-waste dumping ground (2).  The environmental impacts of unregulated ‘recycling’ sites are evident in polluted groundwater, extremely unsafe levels of lead and mercury in nearby rivers, and toxic emissions that contribute to global warming.

Workers at e-waste sites are usually migrants from extremely poor areas and are often children.  They have little to no access to gloves or face masks and are often too desperate for work or uniformed to care about the health risks.  Workers at e-waste sites are prone to skin rashes, cancer, weakening of the immune system, and respiratory, nerve, kidney, and brain damage (3).  In China’s Guiyu region, workers have extremely high levels of toxic fire retardants in their bodies and over 80% of the children already have lead poisoning.

What Can You do to Prevent E-Waste Dumping?

As with any illegal trade, it would be virtually impossible to stop all e-waste exportation and “backyard” recycling operations.  However, you can take measures to ensure that your e-waste is being properly disposed of.  Large consumer electronic stores such as Best Buy and Staples have in-store recycling programs.  You can also find out specific information on nearby certified e-waste recycling programs on your state government’s website.  A list of certified electronics recyclers can also be found through e-Stewards and R2 Solutions.








Why Don’t Presidential Candidates Want To Talk About Obesity?

Do robots dream of subsidized corn?

Running for president of the United States certainly has its advantages. Your job is to travel the country kissing babies and sampling indigenous food and beverage. You get to be on television more than all the Kardashians combined. And last, but not least, you are uniquely positioned to focus substantial national attention on the specific issues that you and your political party believe are critical for the present and future health of your country.

Any candidate’s selection of the key issues on which they will build their campaign is also a function of current events. The crippling global recession that began in 2008 dictated that the 2012 presidential campaign would be focused on the economic health of the US. With twelve million Americans unemployed as of September 2012, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney need polls to tell them that the man with the most credible plan for stimulating economic growth will win the election (although that is exactly what they indicate). However, the wonkish focus of the campaign on creating domestic jobs has led to a substantial public health ramification of the economic downturn being omitted from the political discourse: the increasing risk for obesity.

Both presidential candidates have failed to recognize that an individual’s socioeconomic status is strongly associated with that person’s risk for obesity. Individuals with a low socioeconomic status bear a disproportionate risk of becoming obese. There are many possible explanations for this correlation such as a lack of nutritional education in poor areas or persistent cultural food traditions, but the most compelling explanation is based on a combination of economics and predictable human decision making mechanisms. When faced with severely constrained income, people optimize by purchasing foods based on a strong preference for satiation (the feeling of being full) and palatability (tastes good) over any consideration of a food item’s nutritional content. (See this paper from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for more information.)

A study has indicated that the number of unemployed Americans is positively correlated with the number of Americans who participate in the federal supplemental nutritional assistance program (SNAP). Commonly known as the food stamps program, SNAP provides financial assistance for purchasing food to low income people living in the US. According to census data, in 2010, 40.3 million Americans received assistance from SNAP, which is considerable increase from 26.3 million who received assistance just three years before. The average SNAP participant only has $133.79 per month available to be spent on food, compared to the $215.26 the average American spent on food per month in 2010.

As mentioned earlier, people with severely limited income, such Americans who rely on SNAP, make food consumption decisions based primarily on satiation. This is not a bad thing in and of itself. This human tendency becomes problem when the cheapest food items are unhealthy, high-fat, calorie-dense processed foods. The reason these foods are so relatively inexpensive is that they are composed of corn products that are artificially cheap due to large government subsidies to corn producers. The corn subsidies, which total approximately $5 billion annually, skew food prices and help to make a bag of Doritos (which is both filling and delicious) less expensive than a bag of spinach (which is clearly healthier). These altered prices distort the economic environment of low income people and lead them to consume diets that exacerbate the risk of obesity.

Thus, the missing ingredient in the 2012 campaign is an open recognition of the nexus between the federal corn subsidies, economic distress and obesity. As of now, the candidates have only been interested in talking about obesity in the context of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and determining who will foot the healthcare bills associated with the disease. This approach ignores that the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic must be treated in addition to the negative health effects. A prescient presidential candidate must acknowledge that, even if they are capable of restoring the economy to its former glory, the long recession will have increased the incidence of obesity as approximately one sixth of the population will have spent some time in poverty. Any ameliorative effort must recognize the perverse effect of corn subsidies on SNAP recipients and should seek to promote public health via reform that results in competitively priced healthy food options.