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

Electronics

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

Life has changed profoundly in many ways since our grandparents began their time on the planet. Among the most notable of these changes has been the revolution that has occurred in our electronic technology.

At the end of World War I, “high tech” was a telephone and electric lights. The first commercial radio broadcast (from KDKA in Pittsburgh) didn’t occur until 1920. The first feature length “talkie” movie, the Jazz Singer didn’t show at the theatre until 1927. Commercial television broadcasts didn’t begin until 1941.
So for those of us that have been around more than a couple decades, advances in electronic technology have been a series of wild and crazy developments. The television, computer, cell phone and, now, tablet devices have changed society and how we communicate. Yet, we seldom think of the environmental liabilities that have come with each of them.

Up until widespread production of flat-screen televisions began a decade and a half ago, televisions and computer monitors were almost exclusively cathode ray tubes (CRTs). CRTs have long used leaded glass that prevents breakage of the vacuum tube and protects the viewer from ionizing radiation produced by the set. Besides the lead, older CRTs also used toxic chemicals like cadmium as phosphors.

Though barium is used now to protect the front of the screen, the amount of lead in a television or monitor is still noteworthy and has prompted the European Union and many states to require that they be recycled.

Many hoped that the environmental liabilities of televisions would fade once flat screen technologies gobbled up a bigger market share. But it turned out that we traded one environmental problem for another if we used LCD or plasma screens (since they contain mercury). LCD screens also use Nitrogen Triflouride in their manufacturing process, a chemical that is 17,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

LED screens would appear to be the discriminating environmentalist’s first choice, as the screen has no mercury and consumes a quarter the electricity of plasma screens. LEDs are not without sin either, as it turns out, as they contain small amounts of toxic gallium and arsenic (in the form of the semiconductor gallium arsenide).

Computers, amazing and versatile as they may be, have some of the same sorts of environmental issues. Beyond the monitors, the circuit boards contain lead and cadmium, while some switches contain mercury. Brominated flame retardants are used on circuit boards, cables and the plastic housing.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, has recognized that recovering these devices makes more sense than disposing of them or finding them illegally dumped along the road, leaching their toxins into nearby waterways. The Covered Device Recycling Act forbids the disposal of those electronics after January 24th and requires that manufacturers financially support local recycling efforts like those at the Buckhorn Composting and Recycling Facility.

Whether it is the old black and white telly that has been stashed away in grandma’s basement, the more recent vintage flat screen that went haywire, or that obsolete computer tower, it’s clear that recycling these televisions, computers, monitors, laptops and tablets is a very good idea.

Electronics of all kinds (with the exception of Freon-containing refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners) can be recycled for free at the IRC’s recycling and composting facility in the village of Buckhorn, as well as several other places in surrounding counties. Visit www.ircenvironment.org or do an internet search for electronics recycling.

Groundwater Threats

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

With a healthy snowpack on the ground, it might seem like an unusual time to worry about protection of our surface watersheds and groundwater recharge areas.  Many threats to our water supplies are associated with the warmer weather. Lawn and agricultural chemical applications, sedimentation from excavation or construction, or illegal dumping occur most frequently in spring, summer or fall. Some threats, though, are with us year round and can be even worse in the winter. That uniquely winter pollutant, road salt, can also be a problem when applications are too heavy, runoff happens too quickly or water sources are close to the treated roadways.

The movement of water into and below the water table is complicated, depending on rock and soil and proximity to creeks and rivers. Given that it sometimes moves very slowly and can take a long time to clean itself up, contamination can show up in groundwater long after it was originally polluted.
Wells polluted by malfunctioning on-lot septic systems will continue to have bacterial pollution so long as the system is not working properly. This happens year round, too. Frequently, household wells are polluted by their own septic systems.

Things dumped on the ground - trash, automotive fluids and other hazardous chemicals - can be serious sources of water pollution and can be a problem long after they are dumped. They move slowly into water supplies, sometimes many months after they were dumped on the ground.
The illegal dump study done by Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful accounted for 116 dumps in Blair County. With increased attention given to our dump problems, we would hope that we might see a decrease in dumping. Yet a new illegal dump along the Little Juniata River would indicate that some just don’t hear those messages.

An even longer term problem that contributes pollutants to our water is mine drainage. Much reclamation work has taken place over the last fifteen years, improving many miles of stream in Blair and Cambria County. Yet the undrinkable and unusable acid mine water so common at the western edge of Blair County continues to flow, in both the winter and summer, many decades after it was first fouled by poor mining practices.

Concerns over gas drilling in Marcellus Shale have arisen in the same regions that have been cursed by coal mining problems. (The Appalachian Plateau contains both coal and Marcellus Shale.) Given Pennsylvania’s legacy of figuring out there’s a problem after the damage is done, many in the Plateau region are haunted by the prospects of groundwater contamination that we might not yet fully understand.

Some of these problems are beyond our control as individuals, but there are some that we can help prevent.
• Use less salt to treat your paved surfaces and encourage your employer or snow removal service to use only what is needed.
• Have your septic system tank emptied every few years to prevent it from malfunctioning.
• Recycle or properly dispose of all trash and hazardous materials.
• Report illegal dumping to your municipal officials.
• Let your municipal officials know that convenient and affordable waste and recycling services significantly reduces burning and improper disposal of trash.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

It's Getting Warmer

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

It seems likely that 2012 will be the hottest year on record in the continental United States. Records go back 118 years. This was assured by the spring-like December that we have so far experienced. It was a very warm year before the recent warm spell, as thousands of daily high temperature records had already been set through the first eleven months.

The twelve month period ending in July 2012 was the hottest in U.S. history. July was the hottest month ever recorded in the continental United States. And we’ve been counting for more than 1,400 months.

This isn’t just a 2012 or U.S. phenomena either. The average worldwide land surface temperature for June, July and August was also the hottest ever recorded. Worldwide, it will be the ninth warmest year on record. Prior to 2012, nine of the ten warmest years have occurred since the turn of the century.
Meanwhile, the last nine Septembers (when the Arctic ice cap is at its smallest each year) have brought the nine smallest ice caps since they began measuring the Arctic ice. The ice is getting thinner, too, meaning that it will melt quicker in the following summer.

Less ice means that less sunlight is reflected back into space and a vicious circle of heating and more ice melt occurs.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the United States experienced an even dozen weather disasters that resulted in more than a billion dollars in damage this year. While it is certainly true that weather disasters occur every year, such events are more likely to occur as ocean water temperatures increase. Warm ocean water is the foundation of our most violent and moisture-laden weather.

No matter where you come down on the causes of global warming, it is difficult to deny that something is afoot in the climatological world. Even those that doubt man’s influence on climate change have a difficult time denying that the planet is warming. Three quarters of Americans now believe that global warming is responsible for these profound changes in the weather. Yet we have a hard time taking the steps to lessen our impact on the problem.

Some have argued that this is a one of those natural fluctuations in climate. Most scientists believe that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the resulting extreme levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are causing historic warm temperatures.

Even though reducing GHG emissions would also save energy and money, we still have not been able to slow increases in CO2. Our emissions are actually growing faster than ever. The Global Carbon Project reports that the worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide rose by 5.9% in 2010. Their research indicates that it is the biggest annual increase since the Industrial Revolution began.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that the ultimate impacts of this warming are not just mere inconveniences. Entire coastal communities and island nations (like the Maldive Islands and their 300,000 residents) are likely to see large areas of their land disappear over the next decade. Regardless of whose fault it is, ignoring the issue doesn’t seem like such a good idea.

Vinyl Chloride

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

Vinyl Chloride is nasty stuff. So, when a train carrying the chemical crashes and releases the toxin, people sit up and take notice. Such an accident occurred last Friday in Paulsboro, NJ, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The train originated in Camden, NJ and was bound for Carney’s Point, about 30 miles south where DuPont operates a large chemical facility.

The bridge over Mantua Creek was owned by Conrail and reportedly had experienced problems prior to the accident. Though the investigation is continuing, it would appear from statements made by the National Safety Transportation Board that signaling errors were also made that led to the fiasco. Much like the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it would seem that the early evidence points to this being an avoidable accident. This release also shows that shoddy, poorly maintained transportation infrastructure can endanger both the health of the general population and the quality of the local environment.

While the rail safety part of the story passes on a cautionary tale, it may lull us into forgetting about the bigger picture environmental issues. Why do we need chemicals like Vinyl Chloride and shouldn’t we be extremely careful with them when we do have to ship them?

Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC as it has more commonly been called, is the multi-chained plastic polymer made by stringing together a bunch of vinyl chlorides molecules. Used in a wide variety of plastic products today, it was not produced commercially until B. F. Goodrich began manufacturing it in 1941.
The plastic in its pure form is brittle, so a plastisizer must be added to make it more flexible. About 90% of all plastisizer usage is for PVC and the most common of these are chemicals in the phthalate family.

Phthalates have been in the news a great deal in recent years as concerns have risen over their use in children’s toys and other products. But PVC’s health-related concerns go much further back. High incidences of liver cancer were found in workers in a Goodrich PVC fabrication plant in Louisville, KY forty years ago. Few manufacturing occupations had, to that point in time, been shown to increase cancer risks. This outbreak of a usually rare liver cancer called attention to toxic and dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

More stringent workplace standards for PVC workers have saved many lives over the last three decades but the overall toxicity of the plastic and its by-products still remain a concern. Beyond the phthalates, the burning of PVC brings its own set of problems. Burning vinyl (and other chlorine-containing) products with materials that contain lignin (paper or wood products) produces Dioxin, chemicals that are potent carcinogens and responsible for reproductive and immune system damage.

The production of Dioxins appears to be greater when the combustion temperature is lower and filter technologies are absent. Besides the obvious absence of emission controls, burn barrels are notorious for their low combustion temperatures. So while it may not be likely that we eliminate vinyl from our lives entirely, we would be well served to look for alternatives and recycle (rather than burn) those vinyl products we do use.

The Intermunicipal Relations Committee recycling program will be sponsoring a Christmas wrapping (including vinyl blister packs) recycling event the week after Christmas at the Logan Valley Mall and accepts vinyl products at their recycling and composting facility. Visit www.ircenvironment.org or call 942-7472 for details.

Giving Thanks

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

We Americans, particularly in comparison to most of the rest of the world, have much to be thankful for. Correspondingly, with this thankfulness comes hopefulness that things can be better. With that in mind, let me offer thanks with a note of hope on some of our most vexing environmental challenges.

We central Pennsylvanians should be thankful for the incredibly beautiful natural landscape with which we have been blessed. It should be our hope that we learn to value what a blessing it is and better understand what we must do preserve it. It is especially important to understand that many of our land use decisions will remain with us for decades.

While speaking of blessings close to home, we should also express thanks for the amazing water resources which we enjoy. Let’s hope that we continue to protect those tree-covered watersheds and restore those fouled by mine drainage. Let us also recognize that our ground water is only one careless act away from being undrinkable.

We should also express our appreciation for the many local governments, businesses and individuals that work hard to protect these resources that we use every day. It should be our hope that decision-makers will continue to value the work and find the financial resources for our water and sewer authorities, local government planners, teachers and researchers that raise awareness on these issues, and professional environmental managers of all kinds.

Nationally, I am especially grateful that the United States has valued environmental protection and enacted laws to make this protection a reality. It is my hope that we will see a resurrection of the bipartisan spirit that brought us the original Environmental Protection Act in 1972. That cooperative approach (so rare today) also produced a number of landmark environmental laws that still protect our air, water and those in the workplace.

We should be thankful that the auto industry has finally made substantive progress toward better gas mileage in their cars and trucks. Yet we must endeavor to raise awareness of buying more of those cars and demanding that the industry continue to make progress to make even better ones.

In a world of unstable oil-producing governments, we should also be thankful for the growth of wind-generated power and new-found natural gas. Yet we should be hopeful that we move forward with care so as not to ruin that incredible landscape or those amazing water resources in the process.

Land and water resource protection should also prompt us to be thankful for that which is so often the emphasis of Thanksgiving – food. Here is a hope that we preserve the farmland that is too often gobbled up by suburban sprawl.

We should be grateful that our understanding of the harms of toxic chemical use has grown over the last few decades. Let’s hope that less toxic alternatives to pesticides and industrial chemicals continue to grow.

Finally, I am thankful to both old acquaintances and perfect strangers that tell me they read and enjoy “Earth Matters”. So I optimistic that people are striving to learn more and hoping to make their little corner of the planet a bit greener in the process.

John Frederick writes on environmental issues every other Saturday. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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