Saturday, May 30, 2009

It's in the Bag

On May 20th, the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) released the report, “A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and ‘First or single-use’ Plastic Bags.” The study made immediate headlines with its conclusion that reusable bags can become “an active microbial habitat and breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.”

Before you send all your reusable bags to a hazardous waste facility for proper disposal, it’s important to separate fact from conjecture, and science from self-serving interpretation. It’s also critical to understand who is behind the report and why it was commissioned.

For starters, just because the “E” stands for Environment, doesn’t alter the fact that EPIC is a committee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. This is the same industry that has seen a rapid decline in the demand for single-use disposable bags. According to the Sierra Club of Canada, as of January 2009, Canadians were using about 55 million plastic bags per week. That’s a huge market to lose.

Secondly, although the studies contained in the report were conducted by so-called independent testing laboratories, the conclusions are more anecdotal than scientific, and are peppered with many conditional words such as “can”, “should”, “suggests” and “could”. Any first year biology student would get a failing grade for making such unspecific conclusions on a lab report.

It’s also important to recognize that the samplings are random and too small to be statistically significant. This might explain why the anecdotal terminology was used.

Here’s a look at some of the conclusions:

The test findings clearly support concerns that reusable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.

Can or are? The same observation can be made about the average kitchen counter. More to the point, most Canadians have enough common sense to wash their hands and their food before preparing it.

The unacceptable presence of coliforms, that is, intestinal bacteria, in some of the bags tested, suggests that forms of E. coli associated with severe disease could be present in small but a significant portion of the bags if sufficient numbers were tested. Also, it is consistent with everything that is known about Salmonella ecology that it would also be present on rare occasions.

This conclusion was made despite the fact that the Topline Findings of the same report stated that, “E.coli and salmonella were not present.” The Specific Results of the Second Round of Swab Testing also stated that, “No E. coli or Salmonella was detected in any of the bags.”

This study provides strong evidence that reusable bags could pose a significant risk to the safety of the food supply if used to transport food from store to home.

“Could” and “if” are both conditional terms. Used in the same sentences, the conclusion is nothing more than empty alarmism.

The swab testing demonstrates that single use plastic shopping bags and other first use carry bag options are more hygienic than reusables.

This is simply a statement of the obvious. It’s reasonable to assume that items that haven’t been exposed to bacteria aren’t as likely to be contaminated.

The recommendations contained in the report highlight “the gravity of the results” and the need for more research. On that we can agree. However, I would hope that the next round of studies won’t be paid for by the industry that has a vested interest in the results.

For example, Recommendation #2 is identified as “an immediate priority” and calls for all meat to be “packed in a first-use (translation: plastic) bag to prevent accidental leakage or drips into the reusable bag.”

To make sure that this happens it is recommended that, “This should become a mandated safety standard across the entire grocery industry for reusable bags.”

The report also recommends that family doctors and public health officials should add reusable bags to the list of sources of food poisoning.

The report goes on - and so could I. Bottom line: Use proper food handing practices. If you don’t already, wash reusable bags regularly in mild soap and vinegar (a natural disinfectant). Hang bags to dry inside out, preferably on the clothesline. Sunlight is both a natural bleach and a disinfectant.

That’s not science. It’s common sense.


For a complete copy of the report, “A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and ‘First or single-use’ Plastic Bags”, go to visit the EPIC website and look under “What’s New.”

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In Praise of Trees

Celebrate the return of spring and the miracle of new life by planting a tree.

Trees are magnificent gifts of creation that enrich our lives beyond comprehension. Their splendid canopies reduce the heat of a summer's day and provide shelter and warmth from the winter's wind. Trees are the lungs of the planet, providing life-giving oxygen and absorbing the carbon dioxide that threatens the very stability of our climate. They are sanctuaries for the human spirit and provide a compact between generations. Like our children, trees keep us rooted to the ground and yet they encourage us to look skyward to the heavens and to possibilities that we can only imagine.

In one year, a single tree can offset the carbon dioxide produced by a car driving 41,600 kilometers. In addition, trees also filter toxic pollutants from the air with their leaves, and from ground water with their roots. Three trees strategically planted around your home can reduce heating costs 10 to 30 percent, and cooling costs by 10 to 50 percent.

Spring is the ideal time to plant trees because the higher frequency of rain helps to establish strong root systems. Before you start, the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority (CLOCA) offers the following tips to ensure that the trees you plant today will provide a future forest for your great-grandchildren.

Before Planting:

• Choose species that are native to your area and grown from local seed, whenever possible. Examples include white pine, white cedar, sugar maple and red oak.
• Consider the soil type, moisture levels and topography of where you wish to plant. This will help you pick the right tree for the growing conditions.
• Select the species based on the value of a mature tree, i.e. shade, windbreak, erosion control, food or habitat for wildlife.
• Trees and shrubs need space to grow. Leave at least 2 metres between trees and one metre between shrubs.

During Planting:

• Tree seedlings can be kept in a cool place for 2 to 3 days.
• Make sure that roots never become dry during the planting process.
• Remove grass and weeds from around the planting area to reduce competition for sun and moisture.
• Dig a hole that is deep enough for roots to be fully extended when planted.
• Once planted, make sure that the soil around the tree is well packed to remove air pockets and reduce the settling of the soil.

After Planting

• Newly planted trees require watering every 7 to 10 days. Keep a rain diary to make sure that trees receive adequate moisture.
• Use tree guards to protect tender young bark against small animals such mice and rabbits.
• Check trees regularly to make sure that grass and weeds aren’t overwhelming them.

Related Websites:

For more information about CLOCA, or to find the conservation authority in your area, visit

Trees Ontario works with local tree planting agencies in Ontario, including regional Conservation Authorities and local Ontario Stewardship councils to implement its tree planting subsidy programs. Planting agencies then work directly with landowners to determine site eligibility, allocate funding and coordinate tree planting.

The Global Forest Science Global Forest Science website offers a comprehensive guide to the most common trees of Canada.

Domtar - the paper people - have a great website for children about the wonderful world of trees. Visit

Most people can name their province's official flower, but did you know that each province and territory has its own tree, too? To find out more, visit the Canadian Forestry Association.

Tree Canada is a charitable organization dedicated to encouraging Canadians to plant and care for trees in our urban and rural environments.

Monday, May 18, 2009

It's Energy Conservation Week in Ontario!

May 17 to 23 is Energy Conservation Week in Ontario. The event is organized by the Ontario Power Authority (OPA), the provincial agency charged with the responsibility of ensuring that Ontario has a reliable, sustainable and long-term supply of electricity.

If you’re wondering what conservation has to do with the supply of electricity, the answer is plenty. Generating enough power to fuel the province is both capital and labour intensive. According to the OPA, “Conservation helps reduce the strain on Ontario’s electricity system, ensuring a more reliable supply of power for all users. It also reduces the need for investment in generation and transmission resource, as well as the need for expensive imports of electricity from neighboring jurisdictions.”

In short, a kilowatt of electricity saved is a kilowatt of electricity that can be used somewhere else, rather than having to build new capacity to meet the demand.

Amory Lovins, head of The Rocky Mountain Institute, first popularized this idea. In 1989, Lovins referred to this saved energy as a “negawatt”.

Twenty years later, we’re finally catching up. Today, conservation plays a critical role in balancing our demand for electricity with our capacity to generate it. Conservation programs are cheaper than building new generating capacity and are faster to deliver. Conserving energy also doesn’t produce any of the nasty by-products associated with some forms of power generation such as smog and nuclear waste.

With all that in mind, the idea of “using less electricity, and using it wisely” becomes more than just a cute marketing phrase. Properly delivered, conservation programs could save the province tens of billions of dollars in new construction costs and dramatically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions in the process. With so much at stake, engaging in simple acts of conservation like switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or turning down the water heater suddenly seem a whole lot more important.

In total, the Ontario government has set a target of reducing peak energy use by 6300 MW by 2025. While most consumers understand the message about the benefits of using compact fluorescent light bulbs, lighting only accounts for about 5 percent of residential energy use. Which begs the question, “What else can I do?”

The answer, according to the OPA, is plenty. As the Energy Conservation Week (ECW) website boasts, “There must be millions of ways to save energy. But lets start with 100.”

The idea is to make energy conservation part of your everyday life. The first step is to count yourself in by committing to create your own personal conservation plan using some of the 100 energy-saving tips listed on the ECW website.

For home:

• Schedule an energy audit and act on the results.
• Clean or replace furnace filters (especially if you have central air conditioning)
• Landscape for energy savings.
• Wash only full loads of laundry (in cold water).
• Always set the dishwasher to air dry and only run it when it’s full.
• Vacuum refrigerator coils to keep them efficient.
• Open a window or use a ceiling fan.
• Use drapes/blinds, awnings and shades in the summer to keep the heat out.
• Use task lighting.
• Install motion sensors to turn off lights automatically.

For parents and teachers:

• Teach children good energy conservation habits.
• Choose games and toys with energy use in mind.
• Be a role model for good conservation.

At Work:

• Turn off meeting room lights when not in use.
• Whenever possible, use the stairs instead of taking the elevator
• Turn off all equipment at the end of the day.
• Use paper-reducing strategies.
• Choose green-rated hotels when traveling for business or pleasure.

“Energy Conservation Week provides a focal point for learning what we can do, making a pledge to take action, and gaining from doing so,” said the OPA’s Chief Executive Officer, Colin Anderson. “Saving energy offers three clear co-benefits: It generates employment in Ontario. It supports our economy by saving money. And it helps protect our environment by reducing the need for generation.”


Check out for more great energy saving ideas and to count yourself in!

For almost three decades, The Rocky Mountain Institute has provided global leadership on energy innovation and resource efficiency.

Be Prepared

The H1N1 flu virus (Human Swine Flu) pandemic is the latest threat to reinforce the need for emergency planning. As climate change continues to make extraordinary weather events the new normal, forest fires, flooding, extreme cold and heat waves, prolonged power outages as well as water and food shortages will continue to increase. Add to this list, the potential for man-made environmental disasters such as nuclear accidents and chemical releases. Don’t forget acts of terrorism.

All it all, it paints a rather bleak picture. But rather than run from disaster, the Government of Canada wants its citizens to be proactive and prepare themselves and their families for emergencies of all kinds. To help get the message out, Emergency Preparedness Week, which runs from May 3 - 9, 2009, promotes the importance of emergency preparedness across the country.

The first step is to know the risks – many of which were outlined in the first paragraph.

The second step is to make a plan that will help you and your family know exactly what to do in the event of an emergency. The plan should identify safe exits from your home, a place to reunite if you have to evacuate, designating a person to pick-up younger children if you can’t, a list of contact persons, both nearby and out-of-town, and a place for pets to stay. (In the event that you are required to evacuate, most shelters won’t take family pets.)

You should also make a list of health information, including health card numbers, medical conditions and allergies. Include copies of important documents such as birth certificates, passports, licenses, wills and insurance. The location of your fire extinguisher, water valve, electrical box, gas valve and floor drain should also be listed.

While it may seem like a lot, it shouldn’t take more than about 20 minutes to pull all this information together. Keep your plan in an easy-to-find, safe location. Make additional copies to keep at work and in your car. Review your plan regularly.

The third step is to prepare an emergency kit. The idea is to have basic supplies for 72 hours. The key is to make sure your kit is organized, easy to find, waterproof, and easy to carry (in a suitcase with wheels or in a backpack) in case you need to evacuate your home. If you wait until you need it, it might be too late.

Your kit should contain two liters of water per person per day (Include small bottles that can be carried easily in case of an evacuation order), food that won’t spoil, such as canned food, energy bars and dried foods (remember to replace the food and water once a year). Don’t forget a manual can opener. You should also include a flashlight and extra batteries, a wind-up or battery-powered radio (more extra batteries) and a first aid kit.

Special needs items such as prescription medications or equipment for people with disabilities should be added, along with an extra set of keys for your car and house. It also recommended having approximately $200 cash-on-hand, since ATMs and banking networks may not work during an emergency. Include smaller bills and change for payphones. Finally, include a copy of your emergency plan and contact information.

If all this seems overwhelming, don’t worry. There are plenty of resources out there to help guide you through the process.

Emergency Websites:

Canada’s Emergency Preparedness Week website contains a detailed Emergency Planning guide. The site has links to all provincial and regional emergency planning websites. You can also phone toll-free 1-800-O-CANADA.

Emergency Management Ontario

All municipalities within Ontario are now required to have an emergency plan, which is established through local Community Emergency Management Coordinators (CEMC). You can contact your CEMC through your municipality, or visit

The Public Health Agency of Canada has a special website dedicated to the current Swine Flu crisis. Check out

In the event of an emergency, knowing first aid could save a life. Contact St. John’s Ambulance or the Red Cross for information about first aid courses in your area.

St. John Ambulance has also partnered The Salvation Army to prepare an emergency kit that is available at, as well as from a variety of Canadian retailers.

Check out Environment Canada’s Weather Office.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Cancer Prevention: It’s about time

When you consider the numbers, it’s clear that this current strategy is not working. According to Statistics Canada, in the 1930s, 1 in 10 people contracted cancer. By the 1960’s it was 1 in 4. Today, that figure is 1 in 3. When non-melanoma skin cancers are added to this equation, the figure is actually 1 in 2.

According to Prevent Cancer Now (PCN), “In 2008, an estimated 166,400 Canadians - 6,500 more new cases than the year previous - heard three words that would change their lives forever: “You have cancer.” Almost 74,000 Canadians died from cancer last year - 1,100 more than in 2007.”

“As the Baby Boom generation gets older, even more Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer. But it’s not just our aging population - the incidence of many cancers in Canada, such as breast, prostate and non-Hodgkins lymphoma, are among the highest in the world. According to 2005 data from Cancer Research UK, North America has the highest percentage of deaths worldwide due to all cancers – at 23 percent. Even worse, the umbilical cord blood of every infant on Earth now contains scores of cancer-causing substances, such as pesticides, solvents, hormones and heavy metals – all commonly found in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, including breast milk,” states PCN.

It’s painfully clear. What we do to the environment, we do to ourselves - and to our children. This insanity must stop.

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote in “Silent Spring”, “Although the search must be continued for therapeutic measures to relieve and to cure those who have already become victims of cancer, it is a disservice to humanity to hold out the hope that the solution will come suddenly in a single master stroke. It will come slowly, one step at a time. Meanwhile, as we pour our millions into research and invest all our hopes in vast programs to find cures for established cases of cancer, we are neglecting the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek the cure.”

What is so dramatic about Carson’s statement is that she died of breast cancer a few years after Silent Spring was written. What Carson warned us about then, and what the environmental community is increasingly indicating now. is that environmental degradation is a major cause of the current cancer epidemic.

The problem is that cancers can take 15 to 20 years to develop. Where a person is born is as important as where they were conceived, if they were breastfed, what they ate as a child, and if they lived downwind to a thousand or more airborne carcinogens.

We do not have absolute proof. What we do have is the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, enough pieces to start to see the whole picture. We ignore these pieces at our peril.

With so much time and money being invested in treatment and cure, there isn’t sufficient effort being focused on prevention. It’s like we’re putting all our energy into stopping a runaway train when it would be a lot easier to simply cut the fuel to the engine.

Unfortunately, it’s big business that’s fuelling the engine. Since the 1940s, over 75,000 new chemical combinations have made their way out of the labs and into our everyday lives. In Canada, we use over 50 million kilograms of pesticides every year.

According to Dr. Samuel Epstein, author of The Politics of Cancer Revisited, “The overwhelming majority of the industrial chemicals have never been adequately tested for chronic toxic, carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic effects, let alone ecological effects, and much of the available industrial data is at best suspect.”

What is required is an extraordinary public outrage at the current state of affairs. While we all fear getting cancer, what is infinitely more frightening is the idea that it’s some random, evil thing that affects people without rhyme or reason. If what we’re doing to the environment really is the cause for the dramatic increase in cancer rates, then we can do something about it. This isn’t depressing. It’s exciting, it’s empowering and it’s about time.


Of the half-billion dollars spent in Canada on cancer research each year, less than 2% is devoted to finding the causes - and preventing - cancer. Prevent Cancer Now is a coalition of environmentalists, health care experts and cancer survivors. The Cancer Prevention Challenge is the ONLY fundraiser in Canada that focuses exclusively on primary prevention of cancer – stopping cancer before it starts. To pledge your support or for more information about cancer prevention, visit