art, Nature, New England, New Green Economy, Science, Uncategorized

Glass Flora: A Very Harvard Natural History

Glass flora in Cambridge, Mass

A wonderful blog post about iced flora inspired this post about glass flora — glass flowers that is — in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

This is a permanent collection at the Harvard Natural History Museum.  It’s housed in one of those rare coordinates where art, craft, nature, beauty and research flourish together.

In the image to the right, the flowers shown are each made of glass, mostly blown glass.  It makes sense when you think about it:  what else could capture the luminosity of a live plant?  Ingenious.

The flowers were made to be botanically correct.  There are thousands of glass plants and flowers on display.  The specimens took over 50 years to complete: one glass bit at a time.

It really is mind blowing.  In a pleasant sort of way.

The models were made from 1887 through 1936. The Blaschkas’ studio was located in Hosterwitz, near Dresden, Germany.   Professor George Lincoln Goodale, founder of the Botanical Museum, wanted life-like representatives of the plant kingdom for teaching botany.  At the time only crude papier-mâché or wax models were available.  These glass flowers are elegant, understated (but revelatory for it).  They can only happen once in the arc of the human race: exquisitely unique to this time and place.

photo by kmhurley,  http://www.kmhurley.com

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Environmental Regulations, EPA, Health, Nature, Saving the World, Science

DuPont Herbicide Halted By EPA

DuPont says it’s implementing “broad scientific and stewardship reviews” after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pulled DuPont’s herbicide called Imprelis off the market Thursday.

In EPA’s “Stop Sale, Use, or Removal Order,” the EPA said that DuPont had test data that showed its herbicide Imprelis was harmful to Norway spruce, balsam fir and other trees when it was given EPA approval last August.

(So why was it allowed to market in the first place…?)

DuPont, in the meantime, has posted a job opening for Product Stewardship at DuPont at corporate headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware.  Smart.

DuPont is the registrant of  Imprelis Herbicide (EPA Registration No. 352-793) with the active ingredient aminocyclopyrachlor (CASRN 858956-35-1).  Beginning in June 2011, EPA says it began receiving complaints from state pesticide agencies regarding evergreen damage related to the use of Imprelis.

To its credit, DuPont has been cooperating.  As of August 2011, DuPont has submitted to the Agency over 7,000 adverse incident reports involving damage (including death) to non-target trees – primarily Norway spruce (considered by many to be an invasive plant) and white pine (considered by some to be a pain in the butt, due to sticky pitch or sap, falling branches, abundant shedding of needles, shallow root system and great height which lend to tipping over).  The damage to nearby trees and plants has been observed to be related to the application of Imprelis.

Test data from DuPont has confirmed certain coniferous trees, including Norway spruce and balsam fir, as susceptible to being damaged or killed by the application of Imprelis.  EPA continues to collect information from DuPont, state agency investigations, inspections and data analyses. The Agency continues to investigate possible causes of the evergreen damage.

Based on death of “non-target” trees and other observations, EPA feels it has reason to believe Imprelis Herbicide is in violation of FIFRA based on DuPont’s own test data and information gathered during EPA and state investigations.

If this affects you or your work and you want to know more, go to this EPA page for DuPont Imprelis that provides more information.

Environmental Regulations, Health, Nature, New England, Saving the World, Science

Removing Fluoride From Drinking Water

Calgary’s drinking water will soon be fluoride-free.  City councillors have voted by a margin of 10 to 3 to eliminate the controversial additive from the city’s water.

The issue had become a divisive topic.  Fluoride has been in Calgary’s drinking water for over two decades.  The city still has to inform Alberta Environment of its decision so that the chemical can be removed.

According to the Vancouver Sun, the fluoride debate isn’t just in Calgary.

Should fluoride be mandatory for all citizens?

Interestingly, few argue that fluoride is anything but good for teeth.  Although the Fluoride Action Network points out that humans can have good teeth without fluoride as an additive; then they point out 49 other reasons to oppose fluoride as a mandatory chemical medication metered to the general public by the government. (The 50 reasons are worth a read.)

Activists have a problem with a pharmaceutical creation, a medication, being mandatorily fed to a population.  “What next?” is the thinking.  Maybe Valium is good for people, too.

Valium is not a good example.  But it illustrates the problem.   Just because a chemical compound is believed to be “good for health” by current health measures, should the chemical therefore be added to public consumables?

Who’s got fluoride?

As noted in  “Oral Health in America: A Report of the Surgeon General” (the Surgeon General was David Satcher, May 2000), community water fluoridation continues to be the most cost-effective, equitable and safe means to provide protection from tooth decay in a community.

“The report cites scientific studies finding that people living in communities with fluoridated water have fewer cavities than those living where the water is not fluoridated,” says the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR). “For more than 50 years, small amounts of fluoride have been added to drinking water supplies in the United States….”

We’ve all been drinking this Kool-Aid.

And while fluoride in drinking water may be good for teeth, Kool-Aid with Vitamin C added could be said to be good for an immune system.  Keep it out of my drinking water.

Portland, Maine resident Oliver Outerbridge is leading an effort in Maine to stop fluoride as an additive in public drinking water.  “Our feeling is that adding fluoride to your drinking water is a decision that should be made by an individual. It should not be left up to the government to medicate the people,” said Outerbridge.

Well, if you put it that way….

Where’s the grief?

Many communities have rejected fluoridation.

Others say a low threshold must be established.  “If EPA just did simple arithmetic in a risk assessment, it would have to come up with a standard for fluoride in drinking water of less than 1 mg/L,” said Paul Connett, emeritus professor of chemistry at St. Lawrence University, in a statement.

In Canada, about three-quarters of Alberta’s population have fluoridated water, compared to roughly 45 per cent nationally. In British Columbia, less than 4% of citizens have fluoride in the water.  And in Waterloo, Ontario, residents recently voted by a tiny margin to stop adding fluoride to their drinking water.

In Calgary, fluoride was added to the water in 1989.  City voters narrowly approved adding the substance at the time – so it was never welcomed by an overwhelming majority to begin with.

Wag the dog…?

A great followup to this blog post would be to track the supply chain.  Who’s supplying all this fluoride chemical compound to the utility companies and the public?  And who’s paying for it?

Because it sounds a little like the ubiquitous corn syrup story.  And it doesn’t sound quite right.

Green Reviews, Green Tips, Health, Science

Chemicals and Food Dyes

Lately some big stories about chemicals in food coloring have been published.  “Nobody ever said that chemicals that bring the Pow Orange to spray cheese were a health food,” said Environmental Leader.

The Chicago Tribune noted studies indicating that some chemical compounds in food colorings cause hyperactivity and allergy symptoms in children.

Adding Food Coloring to Children may cause ADHD
Children and chemicals in cake frosting: can they mix?

Warning: the color additives in foods containing the following dyes may cause hyperactivity and behavior problems in some children.
•    Blue 1
•    Blue 2
•    Green 3
•    Orange B
•    Red 3
•    Red 40
•    Yellow 5
•    Yellow 6

For instance, check out this profile of blue food coloring, from eHow.com.

For a backgrounder of food dyes in the U.S. (historically), it does not get much better than this FDA treatise.  For a good list of food additive chemicals to avoid, complete with explanation, see this food dyes page from CSPI.   And, lastly, here is everything the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knows about chemicals in food & packaging.

Green dye in guacamole, blue dye in blueberries

The Daily Green, a consumer site out of Maryland, reported the following: “European regulation, according to CSPI, are already more strict: ‘For instance, the syrup in a strawberry sundae from a McDonald’s in the U.K. gets its red color from strawberries; in the U.S., the red color comes from synthetic Red 40.

Synthetic food dyes are common in “fun”-colored foods popular with children:  breakfast cereals, candies, snack foods and soft drinks.

But it may be surprising to some that synthetic colors are also used to make fruits or vegetables more appealing.  Kraft’s “Guacamole Dip” gets its green color not from avocados but from Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Blue 1.  CSPI notes that the “artificially flavored blueberry bits” in Aunt Jemima Blueberry Waffles are blue thanks to Red 40 and Blue 2, not blueberries.

Be wily: just because it says “strawberry ice cream” in big letters does not mean the food is actually colored with red strawberry juice.  Read the small print.  Of all the major brands, typically Breyers ice cream is the most natural one.  But always read the labels to check for yourself.

From saffron to spray cheese: intelligent life or…?

This quote is irresistible and sums up the food coloring situation, from Environmental Leader:

Using additives to make food more appealing goes back to ancient times when people would salt meat to preserve it. Later, herbs like saffron were added to rice to make it, besides more nutritious, a pleasing shade of yellow.

Many believe that from an evolutionary perspective it was just a matter of time before someone created bright orange spray cheese. – EL

If the food is packaged — from unholy guacamole, easy-cheesy pizza topping to bright blue lollipops — we should think before putting in our mouths or giving it to our children.  Hopefully this article provides good tips and good reference for you to find out more.

The upshot is: keep it natural.

Green Tips, New England, Science, Snow, Winter

Chemicals for Snow Removal

Salting the roads or the walkways for snow removal is illegal in California.  If you’re driving in the mountains in California, say to Tahoe for a ski vacation, you carry chains.  There are turnouts on all the highways, like rest areas, for you to stop and hook the chains onto all four wheels of your car.  They’ll plow, but they won’t salt.

Removing  snow and ice in New England is a little different. Making driveways and walkways passable and safe requires some kick-ass chemicals.  At least, we believe so.

Winter in New England brings unique snow removal challenges.
What chemicals are you using?

Winter ice bonds with pavement and other surfaces.  Ice is like paint – it’s not just a layer sitting on top but is a layer actually knitted to the surface.  What chemical de-icers do is either break that bond or prevent the bond from happening.  A de-icer, of course, is a chemical agent that is spread on snow or ice.

Let’s look at the usual chemical suspects.

Chemicals for snow removal

Snow removal chemicals are either acetates or chlorides.  Acetate chemicals are biodegradable and are believed to have low impact on the ecosystem after being washed off the parking lot and into streams, soil, gardens. Chlorides are salt-based and are more “corrosive,” as chemists like to say.  This means “toxic” to organic life and means “eats away” at inorganic life, such as cement, wood, and the underside of the car.

Chlorides first:

Chlorides for Snow Removal

Rock Salt and Sodium Chloride
> Rock salt and sodium chloride is the most common chemical used in snow removal compounds, but only effective above 20 F.  Rock salt can be corrosive to rebar and steel but has relatively low impact on concrete.  It’s not health food for the ecosystem, significant concentrations can mal-affect flora, fauna and ground water.  Problems, according to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), include salt toxicity to plants and fish, groundwater contamination, and human health interactions, particularly salt intake and hypertension.

Urea and Potassium Chloride
> Potassium chloride is a fertilizer.   It’s also effective for melting ice. The chemical is said to be safe for plants at low doses, though in high concentrations it may prove deadly to the same plants.  Urea does not contain chloride, so it does not carry the corrosive risk to steel and rebar as other chloride-based snow removal chemicals.

Calcium Chloride
> Calcium chloride is a liquid.  It absorbs moisture from the air, thus essentially “dehydrating” the ice so it dissolves. As a snow removal chemical, it is effective in very cold temperatures – colder than Boston, closer to Fargo or Quebec City type temperatures.  Calcium chloride does not require heat to work and is the less-corrosive of the chlorides.

Magnesium Chloride
> Magnesium chloride is considered less corrosive and kinder, gentler to plants and animals than many other snow removal chemicals. The problem with magnesium chloride is that it’s not as concentrated as other chemicals, so more is used; more chemicals is good for the manufacturer, not always good for the ecosystem.

Acetates for Snow Removal

Sodium Acetate and Calcium Magnesium Acetate  are non-liquid, non-corrosive and by most accounts biodegradable chemical substances for snow dissipation. Downside: these chemicals change snow into slush, making it less than ideal for walkways and other high traffic areas.  Makes a mess of nice shoes.

Potassium Acetate
> Acetate potassium
Used in liquid form and good in cold temperatures, like Montreal.  The chemical-substance sticks, so over the winter less is needed – the stuff already on the ground acts as an anti-icer, or “snow melter on contact.”  Cleaning it up in spring can be a problem.

New England snow

Anyone who’s ever skied Tahoe then skied in New England knows the difference: the snow here in New England is more ice-crystals than the slushier. more forgiving type of snow in the Sierras.  (As a native New Hampshirian, I ski like a pro out west, when in the east, at Mount Sunapee say, I’m just shy of completely out of control.)

For more on the potassium chemicals, go to this excellent site on fertilizer chemicals.  Site is http://www.pesticideinfo.org.  With New England this year being the snow removal capital of the universe (it seems), then with planting season coming along, we should get to know our chemicals.

I mean, can’t we all just get along…?

Environmental Regulations, Nature, New Green Economy, Saving the World, Science

New England: The New Green Economy Epicenter

Is New England poised to become to the New Green Economy that Silicon Valley became to Information Technology?

Thirty years ago the average person might have guessed it would be the other way around.  May have guessed that California would produce the Sustainable, Green, Eco-friendly economic revolution, while New England – with it’s rational, over-educated, practical let’s-get-it-done mindedness – would likely be fertile ground for a high-tech explosion.

It turns out that internet technology appeals to the free-spirited, individualistic cowboy mentality.  And sustainable anything appeals to the “get real,” conservative, sensible (and frugal) New Englander.

Sure, there are a lot of academia’s ivory towers in New England – lofty ones, but a New Green Economy must be more than ideas.  So what besides education do New Englanders have that may be not so emphasized in other parts of the U.S.?

New Englanders know how to live together.   They know how to live in a village with other people in close proximity and everything relying on the weather.   That is to say, New Englanders know how to live in a system larger than their own spouse and immediate family — with limited resources and a tempermental eco-system.

New Englanders know how to live, work, and commune with respect.

Living with respect means:  let stuff go, live and let live, don’t pry, your religion and your politics are your business, bring a casserole when your neighbor is sad, use all of the animal if you kill it, and of course: each day show up and do your work.

Those are sensibilities for a sustainable culture — business culture or otherwise. From that mentality or culture more easily comes sustainable solutions.

Those solutions will be the cornerstone of the New Green Economy.

Sustainability and Renewable Solutions?

I grew up in New Hampshire.

The reason there are so many junk cars in a redneck yard is because they’re re-using car parts.  Reuse and recycle.

The reason we had a compost pile back o’ the house is because we needed to make the most of our plot of land – our garden was small and there wasn’t another thousand acres standing by to take our planting.

We used every little bit of everything.

A poet named Donald Hall lived in a nearby town.  Hall wrote what many think of as an Ode to New England living called, “String Too Short To Be Saved.”  It’s a prose book about New England.  It begins this way:

A man was cleaning the attic of an old house in New England and he found a box which was fully of tiny pieces of string.  On the lid of the box was an inscription in an old hand: “String too short to be saved.”

As I say, we saved everything.  Growing up, we had a drawer full of string, twine, old corks, unidentifed pieces of wire, hooks, elastic bands…. nothing was just tossed away.  In fact, we had a couple of outbuildings full of this sort of thing.  We were not unusual in this regard.

Everyone had a compost system, sometimes also called “feeding the pigs.”  Even if you didn’t have pigs, someone did, and deals would be cut in trade for good compost.  This was a matter of course.

A southern facing house was a smart house.  Windows were sealed and insulation was critical.  We grew vegetables, made dandelion wine, and canned for the winter; and we knew that vegetables from that garden, even canned, tasted better and somehow were in fact better than the waxy ones from the grocery store.

“Why those damn beans need wax on ’em is what I’ll never know,” my grandfather said every August.  “And God knows what chemicals are in the soil.”

We didn’t know about “Organic” this or that.  But we did.

Talk to a New Englander

If you want  to talk about Renewable Energy and Sustainability, you want to talk to a New Englander. By that I mean, talk to a rural person in the interior of New Hampshire or Maine.

Overheard recently was a New Hampshire-ite commenting on Vermont’s reputation for being down to earth and green, saying, “Vermont is just a state full of New Yorkers who moved up there with the vain idea of trying to live the Simple Life.” Yikes.

Okay, so it’s still a little provincial in New England with these loyalties to your home state… but the guy was completely right.  There are too many Bing Crosby songs about Vermont and now the whole state has been bought up by dissatisfied New Yorkers.  Not a bad thing, but they are not New Englanders.

Another group besides New Englanders you’d want to talk to about Renewable Energy and Sustainability is of course Native American tribes.  Which is why the Environmental Protection Agency is partnering with tribes to work towards clean water solutions and so on. There are still some folks in New Hampshire to speak with; you’ll notice our good green state has not fallen to the casino nonsense, either.

Show me the green / money!

There is lots of money coming into New England if you are interested in Renewable projects.  As Mass High Tech journal reported on December 17, 2010:

Companies doing research and development, buying equipment or developing renewable energy projects in New England will get a boost from the country’s massive tax cuts package, industry associations said Friday.

The package, worth $858 billion, extends an R&D tax credit for two years and extends a cash grant for renewable energy projects for one year. The package also includes an incentive for businesses to invest in new equipment in 2011.

That’s real money.  This is real.

Concluding thoughts

In the end, all things considered, New England makes surprising sense as the mecca for New Green Economy.  Recent and planned events are driving this forward, such as a surprising turnout recently at a Green Chemistry Forum in Boston at MIT on December 16, 2010.

Here’s what Officials there were saying about Green in New England that you need to know:

EPA Region 1 convened New England leaders in green chemistry during the summer and fall of 2010.  From these meetings a strategic plan was agreed upon as well as a structure for moving forward.  A coordinating committee chaired by Regional Administrator Curt Spalding, US EPA and John Warner, Warner Babcock Institute of Green Chemistry was formed.  From this committee co-leads were selected for six strategic sector based groups;

  • Policy (Government)
  • Production & Work (Business),
  • Investment & Development (Venture Capital/Economic Development),
  • Education (K-12, Colleges & Universities),
  • Advocacy & Demand (Non-Government Organizations), and
  • Healthcare (Environmental Health Organizations)

Members of the Coordinating Committee are charged to be true green chemistry advocates and practitioners, by reaching out to individuals, agencies, associations and the public as advocates of green chemistry. The six strategic groups will develop their own action plans for building understanding, fostering relationships and establishing commitment to a safer, greener, sustainable society.

For more, go to: http://www.epa.gov/region1/gcforum2010/

If you care about Green, New Hampshire, and/or New England, this is something to think about.  It’s real.

Nature, Science

Aliens Eating Arsenic – mmm mmm good

Just a note to acknowledge the aliens announced by NASA last week per this blog’s previous post.  If you follow this stuff, you probably already know that little green men were not the subject of the call.

Turns out, though, that life might well be in our solar system, just in places we would not have thought to look for it.  The short version is that life forms, historically, have been thought to require phosphorus to live.  Turns out that’s not the case.  A steady diet of arsenic will do for some life forms.  Mmm mmm de-lish.

Here’s how Nature magazine puts it:

Scientists have long thought that all living things need phosphorus to function, along with other elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. The phosphate ion, PO43-, plays several essential roles in cells: it maintains the structure of DNA and RNA, combines with lipids to make cell membranes and transports energy within the cell….

The interesting thing is that the only place in the solar system we’ve looked for life is where there is phosphorus.  If it turns out to be true after still more rigorous testing that arsenic can feed a microbe (and then who knows what else?) then we have to call a do-over in our scans for life.

One scientist on the NASA announcement last week said, “We’ll have to rewrite every Biology textbook ever written.”  So this really is a big deal.  It’s akin to finding out that humans don’t have to eat food.   It’s a finding that changes all the rules and upends all our assumptions about biology.

Cool.

Keeps us on our toes.   Turns out we don’t know everything after all.

Who knew?