Earth Matters Columns are written by John Frederick and featured in the Altoona Mirror.

Active Transportation: Healthy and Environmentally Friendly

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Many of us call Central Pennsylvania home because it’s a beautiful place without the problems of bigger, crowded cities. Yet like many other similar communities, Altoona and its suburbs are on the cusp of the gridlock and congestion that curses too much of America.

We continue to spend inordinate amounts of money on highways only to see the highways become more congested. In the last few years, both the public and our policy makers have finally come to realize that there has to be a better way. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the federal government have seen the light and tried to give alternative transportation a share of the pot.

Here’s where this gets exciting for our Blair County community. We find ourselves as one of about 45 communities across the entire country in line for funding to enhance “active transportation. Blair County is the only Pennsylvania community still on this select list.

The Rails to Trails Conservancy is leading the 2010 Campaign for Active Transportation, calling for funding that would provide for specific infrastructure improvements to improve pedestrian, handicap and bicycle access.

This will include dedicated bike and pedestrian lanes, sidewalk construction or rehabilitation, urban trail signage, cross-walk improvements and installation, lighting, green space buffering, urban to off-road trail transition improvements and bike rack installations and related transit interface improvements. Educational and promotional programming is also proposed by the strategy.

A $50 million federal investment matched by $10 million in state and local funds is being proposed to bring needed improvements to reduce dependence on motorized vehicles, cut emissions and energy consumption, ease congestion, lower cardiovascular disease, diabetes and childhood obesity and result in a more livable and desirable community. The campaign builds off of the Non-motorized Transportation Pilot Program of the federal transportation funding bill.

A diverse local committee believes that the 2010 Campaign for Active Transportation in Blair County will ultimately lead to an enhanced quality of life that will attract businesses and individuals looking for a vibrant community, an active lifestyle and a pleasant environment.

On Monday afternoon, October 20th the committee is hosting an official kickoff of our local campaign. Bicyclists and pedestrians will be traveling from Penn State Altoona and the Hollidaysburg YMCA to the kickoff event at the Heritage Plaza in downtown Altoona.

The local event is being done in conjunction with the release to of the national Rails to Trails Conservancy’s report to Congress, "Active Transportation for America" intended to build support for the funding.

What better way to exhibit our community support for such an initiative than to see a big crowd at Heritage Plaza? We are in a position to avoid the transportation mistakes made in other places by building an active transportation infrastructure in Blair County. We need to show decision makers that we’re excited by the prospect.

If we hope to build a future of sustainable and active transportation in Blair County, the next step is to show our support on Monday. Join us at Heritage Plaza and learn more about what it will mean to you and the community. Call (940-1922) or e-mail ( This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ) the Alleghany Ridge Corporation for more details on the event.

Carcinogens

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Does it seem that nearly everything causes cancer? What does it really mean when something is carcinogenic? Why do some smokers contract lung cancer in their forties while some smokers live into their eighties?

There are many questions and much confusion surrounding how and why cancer happens. Though the topic can be a very complicated and technical one, there are some things that we average folks can come to better understand.

To grasp the fundamentals of the process, one must understand what happens when cancer begins. Everything in our body is made of cells of different types. These cells are really very amazing things and perform a variety of different functions.

In some ways they are incredibly durable and have an uncanny ability to repair themselves. Yet cells can be seriously mutated or damaged by radiation or toxic chemicals. The offending substances or radiation can be naturally occurring but an inordinate number are man-made synthetic chemicals. These are things we choose to make and use.

It turns out that “everything” does not cause cancer. Carcinogens do damage to cells that non-carcinogens cannot possibly inflict. This is because cancer-causing substances have the ability to change the DNA in our cells’ chromosomes.

We inhale or otherwise stumble upon most of these through the course of everyday activities. More than three dozen confirmed or suspected carcinogens have been identified in diesel engine exhaust. Benzene is found in common products like moth balls, toilet deodorizers, and gasoline.

Though very long-lasting, toxic and carcinogenic pesticides and herbicides like DDT and “Agent Orange” are now illegal in the United States, their persistence and use in other countries means that they remain in the environment and our fat tissue. More alarming, a number of suspected and proven cancer causers are still used in some pesticides and weed killers.

Carcinogenic industrial chemicals remain in our workplace (including a number of solvents and plastics like vinyl). Many communities also still allow open burning of trash that releases a number of cancer-causing chemicals, dioxin being the worst of the group.

More uncertainty surrounds those chemicals that are suspected but not confirmed carcinogens. Environmentalists have complained that man-made chemicals are assumed innocent until proven, contending that chemical bans should always err on the side of caution. The chemical industry, especially, disagrees with such an over-cautious approach.

The 11th Report on Carcinogens published by the US Department of Health and Human Services in 2005 cites 54 confirmed carcinogens but there are more than 300 substances that are suspected or “Reasonably Anticipated Carcinogens.” Many researchers are also concerned because it is unclear how all of these substances may act in concert with one another.

It’s easy to get discouraged and feel overwhelmed over the widespread presence of these substances. But you can reduce your exposure to these hazards. Internet searches can provide bundles of worthwhile information and less toxic and non-carcinogenic alternatives are now widely available, too.

It may be impossible to eliminate every cancer risk in our lives, but it is certainly within our power to minimize our exposure by embracing more environmentally sound practices and purchasing, both individually and as a nation.

Flooding in the Midwest

Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns


The floods in the Midwest are not just about a particularly rainy spell of weather. Nor are they exclusively a Midwestern problem.

While hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes make the headlines, flooding remains the most common disaster in most parts of America.

If it seems like the problem has gotten worse since you were a child, it’s because it has. Only once since 1972 has flood damage in the US been less than $250 million dollars. Thirty six times since then it has been over a billion dollars.

By contrast, the previous forty years saw only one year (1951) with damage over the billion dollar threshold (in 1995 dollar values.)

While this is another one of those complicated environmental issues on which entire books have been written, a number of points seem clear.
• The US loses nearly two million acres of farmland to urban sprawl every year. That means we pave over or build upon another chunk of land the size of Pennsylvania every 15 years. This has eliminated an astounding amount land which acted as a natural sponge to absorb rain and runoff into groundwater.
• An inordinate portion of the land that we have built upon in the last fifty years has been on or adjacent to waterways. We have ripped up much of the natural vegetative buffers that have served to stabilize the shores of waterways and slow runoff by absorbing it.
• Stormwater management thirty or forty years ago typically was addressed by diverting the water into a pipe and shooting it into the nearest running water or storm sewer. Incredibly, many communities permitted that same practice well into the nineties.

Finally in the last ten years, sound stormwater management has slowly but surely become more commonplace. While it is important to hold developers to high standards, stormwater management is important for the individual property owner as well
• Try as often as practical to allow water to be absorbed by soil and vegetation. This is important even in modest-sized yards. Build grass-covered drainage swales, plant rain gardens in drainage depressions, try a rain barrel on one of your downspouts, or look for water loving plants to minimize runoff.
• If you must pipe the water somewhere, do not put it into your sanitary sewer line. Many local sewer systems become overloaded during precipitation events because of downspout and drain connections that go into the sanitary sewer. Most are now engaged in efforts to remove that rain water from their systems wherever possible.
• Try to preserve or add as many trees and other vegetation as possible on your property. They absorb rainwater, slow runoff and erosion and moderate the temperature. Don’t ever allow bare soil to remain unvegetated for very long. You’ll lose good topsoil on top of accelerating runoff.
• Get involved, even if in a small way, in encouraging local government to establish high standards for developers. Parking lots should not be endless expanses of pavement and all building should be planned with stormwater management in mind. Waterways should be left as much as possible in their natural state. When areas around streams must be disturbed, vegetative buffers should be required.

Many websites expand upon the helpful hints in today’s column. Locally, you can start by visiting www.blairconservationdistrict.org.

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