Thursday, April 24, 2008

Banning the Bottle

Last week, the Hon. Tony Clement, Minister of Health, and the Hon. John Baird, Minister of the Environment announced that the Government of Canada is taking action to protect the health of Canadians and the environment from another chemical of concern.

The target is bisphenol-A (BPA), an endocrine disrupting chemical that has been associated with alterations in brain chemistry and structure, behaviour, the immune system and male and female reproductive systems. BPA is also suspected of promoting breast cancer.

Canada is the first country in the world to complete a risk assessment of BPA, a chemical used primarily in hard plastic beverage containers such as water and baby bottles. The federal government has chosen to focus on baby bottles because infants are at greatest potential risk from the chemical. A 60-day public comment period will determine whether the government should ban the importation, sale and advertising of polycarbonate baby bottles and infant formula cans which contain BPA.

At the press conference held to announce the government's action, the two ministers smiled happily as they handed out BPA-free bottles to young babies. In an interview following the conference, Health Minister Clement talked about our growing awareness of environmental hazards. He even shared his own memories of heating baby formula in BPA bottles for each of his three children.

There is something seriously wrong with all of this. First, as this country's federal health minister, the Hon. Mr. Clement should be well aware that handing out baby bottles is a serious violation of the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The Code was developed and endorsed by the WHO in 1981, specifically to prevent the marketing of breast-milk substitutes, bottles, teats and other bottle-feeding paraphernalia. The reason for the ban, according to the WHO's own estimates, is that 1.5 million babies die every year simply because they are not breast fed.

Secondly, as our federal Health Minister, Mr. Clement should also know that since 2004, Health Canada has recommended exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. Handing out bottles to five-month old babies is contrary to this recommendation.

Thirdly, under Article 4 of the International Code, governments have a responsibility to ensure that the public receives consistent information on the benefits of breastfeeding. Distributing baby bottles is counter-productive to the message that breast is best.

Fourthly, as our environment minister, Mr. Baird should be aware that the formula industry is responsible for tonnes of avoidable garbage - mountains of formula cans, disposable bottles and other related packaging.

It is unconscionable that our federal government has taken what should have been an excellent opportunity to protect infant health and promote environmental responsibility and turned it into a photo opportunity to promote the formula industry. According to Health Canada's own statement, the government will be working with industry to develop alternative food packaging.

This is outrageous. Why is the government spending our tax dollars to help support a multi-billion dollar industry that makes its profits from replacing nature's most perfect food for babies? More importantly, why isn't every Canadian banging on the door of his or her MP's office, demanding an answer to this question?

The infant feeding industry doesn't need our help. A number of water bottle manufacturers made the move away from BPA bottles last year, independent of any government financial assistance or 60-day grace period.

At the retail level, Mountain Equipment Co-op announced last December that it had pulled all BPA bottles off its store shelves and had replaced them with durable, non-breakable aluminum bottles. Prior to last week's announcement, many other retails chains had followed suit, including Canadian Tire, Hudson Bay Companies, The Forzani Group, Sears Canada and Home Depot.

We have the evidence. BPA should be banned and the formula industry should be forced, at its own expense, to come up with an environmentally safe alternative that meets independent standards. This is simply the cost of doing a very dirty business.


For more on the dangers of formula feeding and benefits of breastfeeding, visit

Health Canada’s recommendation regarding breastfeeding are posted at

For more information about the government’s action on BPA, visit or call 1-866-891-4542.

The report, Smart Plastics Guide – Healthier Food Uses of Plastics for Parents and Children is available from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Make Every Day, Earth Day

Long before Earth Hour managed to grab our attention for an entire 60 minutes, there was Earth Day. While it was originally created in 1970 as a university teach-in, the purpose of Earth Day has evolved over the past four decades. Unlike Earth Hour, which was focused on a single event, the goal is to make every day Earth Day.

After twenty years of trying to do just that, I can honestly say that this is a lot harder than it sounds. It's not that we don't have the right information. The problem is that we have so much information available from so many sources that it has become impossible to take it all in. So we skim the headlines and glean what we can from 60-second sound bites. And therein lies the problem. No one delivers those 60 seconds better than commercial advertisers.

Every time we turn on the television or radio or pick up a newspaper or magazine, we invite the big global marketing machine to invade our personal space and entice us to buy everything from bottled water (which has been parlayed into a $100 billion dollar a year industry) to the latest generation of electronic gadgets (which will be obsolete in six months).

Creating all these consumer goods uses massive amounts of raw materials and energy that's used to mine, produce and ship finished goods to the Big Box store nearest you. In addition, there are mountains of mine tailings, sludge and other wastes generated by the refining of raw materials for the manufacturing process. A study done by the U.S. EPA estimates that for every bag of garbage we put at the curbside, 72 bags of manufacturing wastes are generated. Add to this the gas that we dump in the family van or SUV to get to the store (and back again) and all the related plastics bags and packaging materials.

Curbing our consuming habits isn't just about reducing our staggering impact on the environment. Spending less can dramatically reduce our debt loads and our stress levels.

James Main, a regular reader of this column, has agreed to let me share some of his common sense ideas.

"Who says saving the earth and saving your pocketbook can't go hand-in-hand?" wrote James. "I've received a lot of flak from family and friends over the years about my frugal ways, but I am able to bask in the glory of having my mortgage paid-off."

James says that responsibility and restraint are the flipside of living in a prosperous society. Just because we can buy stuff, doesn't mean we should. The key is learning self-control and then teaching this lesson to our children.

Here are a few of James' suggestions (most of which he and his family have been doing for more than a decade):

* Get rid of your gas-guzzler in favour of a more efficient vehicle. Take public transit whenever possible and walk your kids to school.
* Forego the drive-thru and make your own coffee. Take a thermos to work and save even more.
* Don't buy bottled water.
* Slow down. Reducing your speed from 118 to 80 km/hour improves fuel efficiency by 30 percent. It's safer and you can actually enjoy the scenery.
* Regularly maintaining your vehicles improves fuel efficiency by 10 percent. Proper inflated tires can save another 4 percent.
* Wash in cold water and only wash full loads. Don't forget to use your clothesline.
* Install compact fluorescent bulbs wherever possible, and dimmer switches where you can’t. Use motion sensors in low-traffic areas and outdoors lights.
* Turn down the water heater and install low-flow showerheads and toilets.
* Learn to say no to your kids every time they want you to buy something.
* Get the marketing machine out of your living room. In James' case, he got rid of cable TV in 1999. At a rate of $100 a month, he estimates that he's saved over $10,000 in nine years.

As James explains, while he did most of these things because he is frugal by nature, there is definitely a win-win.

"Let's make frugality cool again. If not in the name of saving the environment, then in the name of avoiding excessive personal debt," wrote James. "Perhaps the green movement should frame their arguments in this context."

Thanks, James. Consider it framed.


Earth Day Canada

The Story of Stuff looks at underside of our production and consumption patterns.

Read Elizabeth Farrelly’s brilliant essay, Fear of Not Having Had, in the March/April 2008 issue of Orion Magazine.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Let it all hang out!

April 19th is National Hanging Out Day. Before you get too excited, it isn't a day set aside for running around in the buff. National Hanging Out Day was established to celebrate the virtues of the lowly clothesline.

With so many other big environmental issues to worry about, promoting clothesline use may seem a little trivial. The truth is that the demise of the clothesline is a symptom of a much larger ill. We are hooked on consumer products that supposedly make our lives simpler. Decades ago when energy was cheap and dryers were the hottest new convenience item everyone had to own one. Having an unsightly clothesline in your backyard became a bit of a social faux pas, much like having a TV antenna on your roof or a compost heap in your backyard. We were, after all, so much more modern than that!

What began as a status symbol quickly became the status quo. Builders started including "No clothesline" clauses in new subdivision contracts. This practice has become so widespread that most people believe that it's actually against the law to put up a clothesline. It is really important to understand that is not true.

So what makes having a clothesline so special? Here's the Top 10 Reasons, courtesy of Project Laundry List, (plus I've added a couple of my own for good measure.)

* Save energy. It's estimated that dryer use can make up to 10 percent of your electricity bill.

* Save money. You can save more than $100 a year on your electricity bill by using a clothesline.

* Reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing electricity consumption, particularly during peak periods, can have a dramatic impact on the amount of carbon dioxide, harmful smog-causing particulate and other nasty atmospheric pollutants that are released.

* Clothes and sheets smell so much better. Climbing into a bed made with fresh, line dried sheets is one of life's sweetest pleasures.

* Line drying clothes saves even more money by eliminating the need for expensive dryer sheets and fabric softeners. It's also worth noting that the perfumes, dyes and other chemicals used in these products increasingly cause allergic reactions in chemically sensitive individuals.

* Clothes last longer. All that bouncing around in the dryer actually breaks down fibers and causes clothes to wear much more quickly. Where did you think all that dryer lint was coming from?

* Forget about the 20-minute work out! Hanging clothes is a great way to get moderate exercise while enjoying the fresh air. One seriously obese Australian woman used hanging out clothes as an inspiration for a new lifestyle regime that ultimately led to her 67 kg. weight loss.

* Sunlight bleaches and disinfects clothing. Long before the advent of chemical bleaches, linens were routinely pegged out on hillsides known as bleaching fields.

* Drying clothes on indoor racks can help increase humidity during the dry winter months. Nobody is suggesting that you hang seriously wet clothes around your house, but hand washing fine knits and then drying them on indoor racks can help boost humidity while eliminating expensive dry cleaning bills.

* Reduce the risk of house fires. Failing to regularly clean out the link trap and dryer vent can be a major culprit in dryer fires. In the US alone, this translates into $ 100 million in damages annually.

* Reduce the need for air-conditioning in the summer. Running the clothes dryer on a hot summer day inside your house can dramatically increase your need for electricity, which in turn can increase smog.

* Save time. During the summer months clothes actually dry far faster on the clothesline than they do in the dryer, and they smell better, too.

* Dry year round. Contrary to popular belief, clothes will dry even on the coldest winter day, provided the sun is shining.

With all this going for it, the lowly clothesline is poised to make a serious comeback. To help this process along, the McGuinty government recently announced that it will be introducing Right to Dry legislation later this spring. If passed, the legislation will override any restrictive community regulations that ban the use of clotheslines. I'll dry to that!


Project Laundry List aims to reduce our dependence on environmentally and culturally costly energy sources by making simple lifestyle changes like switching to air-drying clothes.

Check out the Clothesline Diet Club

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Global Dimming

Concern over global warming has literally reached a fever pitch. And while no one is denying that addressing this critical issue may very well be key to our planet's survival, it is not the only major problem that needs our immediate attention. Earth's biosphere is an interconnected system where everything influences everything else. By focusing so much attention on global warming we are ignoring other critical issues at our peril.

Consider the little known phenomenon called global dimming. Scientists first began documenting this anomaly more than a quarter of a century ago, but it has languished in obscurity until last year when the BBC science program Horizon featured a documentary on the subject.

The story, which has more twists and turns than a Dan Brown novel, began in Israel in the 1950s when British scientist Dr. Gerald Stanhill was developing an irrigation system. He carefully measured the amount of radiation that was reaching Israeli soil in order to calculate how much irrigation would be required. Some 20 years later, Dr. Stanhill repeated his measurements to make sure that his original calculations were still valid. He was astounded to discover that there had been a 22 percent drop in measurable solar radiation.

While Dr. Stanhill's subsequent report of his findings was almost totally ignored by the scientific community, it did capture the attention of German scientist Dr. Beate Liepert. Dr. Liepert studied journals and other data from 1950 to the early 1990s and concluded that the phenomenon of reduced radiation wasn’t limited to Israel. Dr. Liepert discovered that the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface during the study period had decreased 9 percent in Antarctica, 10 percent in the United States, 30 percent in Russia and16 percent in parts of Britain.

Once again, these findings were dismissed, largely because they contradicted the growing body of evidence about climate change. Logically, if less energy from the sun was reaching the Earth’s surface then the temperature should be getting cooler, not warmer.

Meanwhile in Australia, Dr. Michael Roderick and Dr. Graham Farquhar were gathering data about pan evaporation rates. For more than a hundred years outdoor evaporation rates have been measured for agricultural purposes. What the two scientists discovered was that despite the increase in global temperatures, pan evaporation rates have been declining since the1990s.

What their data led them to conclude was that contrary to popular scientific belief, the rate of evaporation is not determined by temperature, but rather by photons of sunlight knocking molecules of water out of the pan and into the atmosphere. Subsequent Russian research confirmed that the drop in the evaporation rate corresponded directly with the drop in solar radiation.

Using their collective data, Indian scientist Dr. V. Ramanathan conducted an atmospheric study over the Maldives Islands in the Indian Ocean. What he discovered was that the decline in solar radiation was caused by billions of tiny particles produced by the burning of fossil fuels. This particulate matter was turning the clouds into giant mirrors, reflecting the sunlight back into space. These same particles were also acting like giant umbrellas, shielding the Earth from the sun's heat.

Dr. Leon Rotstayn from the CSIRO Atmospheric Research Institute took the Maldives data and made an astounding conclusion. Exhaust pipes and power stations in Europe effectively caused the dimming that was ultimately responsible for altering the monsoons over Africa. This led to a 20-year famine in Ethiopia, claiming over one million lives and impacting 50 million more.

Even more shocking was his conclusion that the change to the African Monsoon was just a taste of things to come. The Asian Monsoon brings rainfall to 3.6 billion people, more than half the world’s population. Alterations to the Asian Monsoon could create a famine beyond our comprehension.

Until recently, global dimming, caused by airborne particulate, has actually protected us from the potential climate changing impacts of less toxic gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. While we have made significant strides in reducing deadly airborne emissions thanks to the widespread use of catalytic converters on cars and scrubbers and other pollution control devices on power plants, so-called greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

Here is the terrible Catch-22. Without the protection of global dimming, global temperatures could rise twice as quickly as currently predicted with catastrophic results.

If there is any good news is all of this, it is that the burning of fossil fuels is the root cause of both climate change and global dimming. This new evidence makes is even more critical to break our oil addiction and create a carbon-free energy economy before we catastrophically and irreversibly change our Earth.


Take the time to watch the 40-minute 2007 Horizon documentary entitled, Global Dimming. It is available at

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Morning After

After months of anticipation and preparation, Earth Hour has arrived on Saturday, March 29th. All told, millions individuals, businesses and cities around the globe turned off their lights for one hour.

What began in 2007, as Sydney, Australia's attempt to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions became a global phenomenon in 2008. Clearly it was an idea whose time has come.

While it's critical not to diminish how important it is that we finally recognized the need for action on climate change, there are a couple of nagging questions that need to be answered. Why this and why now? And then there's the much bigger question, what next? We've known for decades that we need to address the issue of climate change. For years we've attempted to reach some kind of global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, whether through the Kyoto Protocol or some other regulatory framework. Most recently we've Gorified Big Al and given him two of mankind's greatest honors - the Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award - all for his efforts to educate us about the need for action on climate change.

Despite all this, it's pretty much been business as usual. It's much easier to give other people awards for doing the right thing than it is take responsibility for our own actions. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has continued to rise unabated because we continue to use energy like there is no tomorrow.

My self-titled grumpy husband Brian dubbed Earth Hour "Earth Day for ADHD sufferers". If Andy Warhol were alive today, no doubt he would have made some statement about our heroic efforts to extend our allotted fifteen minutes of fame to an entire hour in order to save the planet.

I'm a little more optimistic. I think Earth Hour captured our imaginations because it gave us a focal point. It's like making New Year's resolutions. We all know that we need to change, but sometimes we need a designated starting point - whether it is a specific date or even a specified hour. It gives us a fresh start and an opportunity to gather up the courage and the will power to actually make the changes necessary - whether it's a New Year's resolution to quit smoking, or an hour to think about how we use energy.

Which leads to the final question. Despite all the hoopla, the candlelit dinners and the gatherings around the fireplace with family and friends, the only thing that really matters is what happens after Earth Hour. I think that's the point Brian's trying to make.

It isn't going to be easy. We are all energy addicts. In the absence of a neighborhood chapter of EAA (Energy Addicts Anonymous), or any enforceable legislation or agreements to make us reduce our energy consumption, we need to come up with a concrete plan to fundamentally change how we live our lives.

For starters, let's embrace the obvious. Turn off lights - not just for an hour, but whenever they are not essential. I recently spent an overnight in downtown Toronto and was shocked by the number office buildings that left their lights on throughout the night. Most notably, the Scotia Bank Tower had every floor fully lit. Last weekend my family was again driving through Toronto on Saturday evening, this time on the 401. The Ontario Ministry of Health building (located near Weston Road) had every single light switched on. I have never seen a building so completely illuminated. It's had to believe that this is the same government that's championing energy conservation.

Secondly, like other addicts, get help. If you can't figure out how to cut your energy consumption, find someone who can. Have an energy audit done on your home and your business. Once you've established a baseline, set targets and stick to them.

Thirdly, think outside the box. One of the reasons that Earth Hour so successfully captured everyone's imagination is that turning off lights at night produces an immediate visual result. Unfortunately, lighting only accounts for about a quarter of our energy consumption. Close to two-thirds of the energy used within the municipal infrastructure is actually used to pump water. Replacing your toilets, showerheads and faucets with water efficient models has the potential for greater savings than changing light bulbs, particularly when you factor in the energy that’s needed to heat water. And that's just for starters.


Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency

Ontario’s Energy Conservation Bureau

Water Slide

Easter weekend was marked by several global events. It began with the first day of spring on March 20th, followed by Good Friday, World Water Day on Saturday and finally Easter Sunday. This culmination of religious, political and astronomical events provides a tremendous opportunity to reflect on the environmental, historical and religious significance of water.

The story of water is the story of life itself. It is also a unique story. In the known universe, the Earth is the only planet that we know for sure is blessed with water. Seen from the velvet blackness of space, our home planet looks like a blue jewel and perhaps should have more appropriately been named Water.

We know that we have the same amount of water now on Earth as we did at the time of creation. We don't have a cosmic store that we can run out and get more from. It is a finite resource. Water is an essential element of life. A healthy human can live for a month without food, but will die in less than a week without water. We live by the grace of water. Only the air that we breathe is more critical to our survival.

So let's begin at the beginning. The biblical story of Adam and Eve tells of our fall from grace. In our quest for knowledge we were banished from an earthly paradise. While there has been much debate about the truth of this story, I believe it to be a parable - perhaps the most important parable in the Bible. Genesis tells us that God gave us dominion over all other living creatures. With that dominion came a responsibility to care and nurture God's creation. Unfortunately, as the centuries have proven, we haven’t made very good stewards.

In his book, A Short History of Everything, scholar Ronald Wright explains that if the Garden of Eden had an address, it was likely the tiny settlement of Jericho near the Dead Sea. By 6000 BC there is evidence this settlement was abandoned because of widespread deforestation and erosion caused by human activity.

Wright continues to map the migration of our ancestors to the great flood plains of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers - an area known as Mesopotamia. What's ironic is that this fertile delta was comprised of the soils that had been washed away by erosion out of Eden. These recycled soils from Eden were Nature's way of giving our ancestors a second chance. But unfortunately they didn't fare much better there.

Swamps were drained, floods controlled and civilized man began his agricultural pursuits in earnest. By 2000 BC, the scribes of the day were reporting that the earth was turning white with salt. The problem was the very thing that made the land fertile in the first place - irrigation. In the natural cycle, water rinses salt from rocks and carries it out to sea. When water is diverted for irrigation, particularly on to very dry land, a lot of the water evaporates leaving the salt behind.

As the lands of Mesopotamia grew more and more saline, empires moved further and further upstream, each one falling to the same fate. Today many of those lands are encompassed by modern Iraq - a country where half of the irrigated land is saline - the highest proportion in the world.

And so it has continued for thousands of years. Despite centuries of evidence that it really isn't sustainable, today a whopping 65 percent of our water is used for irrigation. The United Nations estimates that it takes about 3,000 litres of water to produce our daily food ration, about 1,000 times more than we need for drinking.

This goes way beyond unsustainable agricultural practices. It is estimated that in North America the combined use of water translates into 4,900 litres of water per person, while in other parts of the world the UN reports that 1.1 billion people lack adequate access to clean drinking water. An additional 3 billion people don't have enough water for basic sanitation, cooking and washing.


The UN estimates that by 2025 as much as two-thirds of the world's population will be living in conditions of serious water shortage. To find out more about the UN's Water for Life Decade (2005 – 2015), and World Water Day,

Ronald Wright's book, A Short History of Everything, began as a CBC Massey Lecture. To listen to the original lecture, or for more on his published work, search