Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bisphenol A

Published in the Sun June 30, 2012

Wouldn’t it be great if experts could agree on which toxic chemicals don’t belong in our food supply?  Instead, one group of environmental scientists will warn that a certain chemical is turning all the little boy fishes into little girl fishes, and then another group of scientists, usually the ones paid by the makers of the maligned chemical, claim that it is safe enough to put into baby bottles.  The federal government will eventually wade into the controversy, form a huge committee, and proclaim that more studies are needed.

I am referring specifically to bisphenol-A (BPA), widely used these days in hard plastics and epoxy resins.  Ninety-three percent of Americans have measurable BPA in their urine, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control.  Although our bodies can get rid of BPA if the exposure stops, we are constantly re-exposed.  Our main exposure comes from the epoxy resin used to line the majority of food and beverage cans.   Tiny quantities of BPA leach into our vegetable soup or canned green beans or whatever we threw on the stove for a 5-minute supper, so the more canned food you eat, the more BPA you get.

We are also exposed to BPA by drinking from polycarbonate bottles, the hard plastic ones that usually have a number 7 on the bottom.  A study of Harvard students found that students who drank most of their beverages from polycarbonate bottles for one week increased the level of BPA in their urine by 69%.  In the past, baby bottles were made with BPA, which is especially hazardous because parents tend to warm bottles in the microwave.  Heat dramatically increases the amount of BPA that migrates into the milk or formula.

Nobody disputes that we are exposed to BPA.  The question is, “Does it matter?”  The dose makes the poison, and the quantities in our bodies are very small, far lower than the level the EPA says is safe for a chronic exposure.  However, there are researchers who believe the EPA is looking at the wrong endpoints.  BPA is an endocrine disruptor; meaning that tiny quantities could have important hormonal effects on sensitive cells, especially in a fetus or newborn baby.

BPA was first used as a pharmaceutical agent in the 1930s to promote growth in cattle and poultry, and later as a synthetic hormone in pregnant women.  It was eventually abandoned as a drug and taken over by the plastics industry as a hardener for clear plastic.

In 1989 Dr. Ana Soto at Tufts University School of Medicine found that her experiments exposing cells to hormones went haywire when her test tube company started providing her with new impact-resistant test tubes.  Sure enough, the new tubes contained a plastic hardener similar to BPA that was causing her experimental cells to act as if they were being exposed to estrogen, a female sex hormone.  This discovery led Dr. Soto to begin animal experiments with several plastic additives, including BPA.  She discovered that at doses comparable to what people receive in their daily lives, BPA could cause reproductive effects, obesity, behavioral changes, and breast cancer in animals.

Over the following 20 years many trees were cut down to publish the scientific papers linking tiny doses of BPA to hormone-related disorders such as abnormal sperm development, heart disease, prostate cancer, diabetes, and even obesity.  Not too surprisingly the plastic industry vigorously maintains that BPA is safe at the levels to which we are exposed.

Despite the controversy, the European Union, Canada, France, Denmark, Malaysia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and China have all banned BPA from being used in baby bottles, reasoning that while the experts continue to argue, it is better to be safe than sorry.

The US Food and Drug Administration, on their website devoted to BPA, states unequivocally that they are “pursuing additional studies.”  They concede that since infants may be a sensitive population for BPA, they are “supporting the industry’s actions to stop producing BPA-containing bottles and infant feeding cups for the US market” and “facilitating the development of alternatives to BPA for the linings of infant formula cans.”  In other words, if consumers want plastics without BPA, we should stop buying BPA plastics.  That would be a fine strategy if the majority of consumers were well-informed about BPA, but endocrine disruption is not high on the worry list for most people.  Dr. David Ramsey, a Georgetown pediatrician, says that he has never, ever had a parent bring up the topic of BPA in baby bottles.

If you go shopping, you may find some products or canned goods that say “BPA-Free”, but you won’t find any that say “This product contains BPA” because what company would put that on your canned food or plastic cup if they don’t have to?  In 2009, Walmart voluntarily stopped selling baby bottles made with BPA.  Jen Sherwood, an assistant manager at the Georgetown Walmart, also showed me the Cool Gear BPA-Free plastic water bottles for adults which come in a wild assortment of styles and colors.  She has three of them herself.  Isn’t it interesting that Walmart would be more concerned with consumer protection than the FDA?

I asked Dr. Joshua Long, Environmental Studies professor at Southwestern, for his opinion on the controversy surrounding BPA.  He thinks there is enough evidence from animal testing to support the toxicity of BPA.  He personally avoids BPA and avoids giving it to his family.

If you want to take a few prudent steps to cut down your BPA exposure, here are some suggestions.

1.  Limit canned foods unless the cans are BPA-free.  Use frozen or fresh.

2.  Use glass and ceramic dishes for storing (and microwaving) food.

3.  Don’t put plastics in the microwave.  Even if containers are “safe” for the microwave, hot liquids dramatically increase leaching of BPA (and other chemicals) into your food.

4.  Throw away your polycarbonate water bottles (marked #7) and get some reusable metal bottles that don’t have a BPA lining.  Or just drink out of a glass.

                                          Items from my kitchen that probably contain BPA

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Published in the Sun June 16, 2012

“We cannot always build the future for our youth,

 but we can build our youth for the future.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1940

Daniel Thomas, Jina Torres, Michael Carlson, Jessica Carr, Jim Rudd, Jeremy Carr, Jacob Bishop and John Jarmon.  Not pictured is Sean Bullock, president of BLADE club.
When Jacob Bishop, 16, was first learning to build solar panels he wasn’t very good at soldering.  The 6 inch square polycrystalline wafers he was soldering together were as brittle as potato chips.  He and his fellow students at Taylor High School broke quite a few of them in the beginning, which was a shame because the wafers were bought with money from the Waffles for Wafers Breakfast fundraisers.  But the students kept soldering on, and painstakingly completed four 126 watt solar panels, each constructed from 36 of the delicate wafers connected in series, framed and protected from breakage under glass.

Jacob and his friends are members of BLADE – Beginners Learning Alternative Designs for Energy.  The after-school club was the brainchild of John Jarmon, a master electrician and employee of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) who wanted to give back to the Taylor community.  John believes we need a lot more people with technical skills and wanted to teach electrical theory to teens who might become electricians and engineers.  A few kids showed up for the club, but when they saw that a textbook was involved they drifted away, leaving John alone in an empty classroom, pondering how he might spark some interest in electricity.

The breakthrough came when John was approached by a representative of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).  IEEE was recruiting high schools to compete in a photovoltaic design competition culminating in a presentation at the Austin Convention Center on Solar Day.  The students would have to design and build a project demonstrating a practical use of solar energy, using photovoltaic solar panels as the sole source of energy.

Competition set the BLADE club on fire.  The kids decided to build their own solar panels and mount them on top of a van.  When parked in the sunshine the panels would charge a bank of batteries storing six kilowatt-hours of electricity, plenty for hours of video games on a wide screen TV or full length movies projected on an outdoor screen with a thundering sound system.  The van would become an off-grid mobile entertainment center.  How cool is that?

The solar panel factory opened for business.  John gathered some of his co-workers at ERCOT and they started looking for a van.  Jim Rudd, one of the co-workers, pointed out that John already had a 1999 GMC Safari van with 220,000 miles on it, and hadn’t John really been planning to get a Prius anyway?  John’s van was donated to the club.  Maroon was the wrong color for the Taylor Ducks, but a green paint job and some duck decals on the doors made it perfect.

Sponsors rallied around the cause.  Interstate Batteries supplied six deep cycle batteries, HEB helped with a 40 inch flat screen television, Best Buy gave an amplifier, and Taylor Sporting Goods provided a PlayStation 3.

Jessica Carr points out the fragile wafers
 the club members soldered together.
By June 3, Austin Solar Day, the van was ready, and the kids had a booth at the convention center.  Although they were competing against seven other Central Texas high schools, the BLADE kids came away with first prize – a thousand dollars.  According to the judges, the fact that they built their own solar panels rather than use off-the-shelf panels was a major factor in the victory.  Of course the win was also a huge self-esteem booster for the kids.  Jessica Carr, one of the few girls in the club, plans to major in both solar engineering and art at Concordia, and Jacob, who is now pretty decent at soldering, will pursue an electrical engineering career in the military.

Winning was great, but I was curious why these ERCOT people were so enthusiastic about solar energy.  After all, ERCOT controls 85% of the state’s electric load, managing 40,500 miles of transmission lines and the flow of electricity to 23 million Texas customers.  I had thought that ERCOT might be dismissive of solar energy, but I was wrong.  When people put up solar panels, they are generating electricity for their own use during the sunniest part of the day, right when power is needed most.  This is called distributed generation.

John pointed out that we were very close to rolling blackouts last summer when all the overworked air conditioners put a huge strain on the electrical grid.  “When we get up to those kinds of loads, those power plants are in trouble.  The transmission lines are in trouble too.”  With demand for power peaking, “a couple more solar panels on a couple more roofs would have been nice.”

Jim Rudd, the friend who persuaded John to donate the van, agrees that we were very close to blackouts last summer.  Jim keeps his electric bill down to $50 a month by turning his AC up to 84 degrees while he is at work.  He wants to put a 4 kilowatt solar system on his roof so that his house can be “net zero,” meaning he will produce as much electricity as he uses.

John has another reason to like solar energy.  His wife is from Japan.  Her family (who will soon be installing solar panels on their house) live 100 miles from the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant, the one that was damaged by the tsunami and leaked radiation.

While I was admiring the BLADE van, John’s 12 year old friend Michael Underhill explained to me why it’s good to use fewer fossil fuels.  “We need to save those for the future, just in case.”  Michael, who is going to live in that future, wants to make sure we don’t run out of resources before he gets there.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Published in the Williamson County Sun, June 9, 2012

Houston Toad, photo by Clifton Ladd

The Georgetown salamander, whose only home is Williamson County, is not listed as an endangered species, at least not yet.  But here is a little story about how Bastrop County dealt with their own endangered amphibian, Bufo houstonensis, the famous Houston toad.  I was tipped off to these events by the newest Environmental Studies professor at Southwestern, Dr. Josh Long, who introduced me to his father Bob.

Bob Long has been described as a gun-toting, Republican preacher on a quest to save the endangered Houston toad.  I can’t comment on his voting record, but he does have a pistol strapped to his right hip.  We are heading out to see the toad habitat on his 550 acre cattle ranch near Bastrop, and the gun is in case we see a rattlesnake.  Unlike Houston toads, rattlesnakes are not protected by the Endangered Species Act, so if we encounter an unlucky rattlesnake on this excursion Bob will definitely endanger it.

On the road to the ranch we see burned out forests everywhere, blackened tree skeletons poking up from wildflowers and green meadows that sprouted in the spring rains.  At least, the lucky areas have new meadows and wildflowers.  Some of last summer’s wildfires burned so hotly that the soil beneath the trees was sterilized, all the dormant seeds and roots destroyed.  The Houston toad population, driven out of Houston years ago by urbanization, is now confined to a shrinking habitat centered in Bastrop County.  The toad likes to burrow in the loose soil beneath pine and oak forests, so the fires may have dealt a fatal blow to the struggling species.

Bob was introduced to the Houston toad back in the late 1990s when the US Fish and Wildlife Service called a meeting at the Bastrop Opera House to lay down the law to the local landowners.  A man Bob described as “confrontational” announced that the federal government was dead serious about protecting the Houston toad through the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and if the local ranchers didn’t get on board with protective measures the Fish and Wildlife Service would rule that the continued existence of the toad was in jeopardy.  A “jeopardy” ruling under the ESA has serious legal clout, allowing withdrawal of federal funds for local schools and roads if the community did not comply with conservation measures.  Needless to say, this news did not go over very well with the ranchers.  A lot of people were pretty riled up about this threat to private property rights.

In all his years tromping around on his ranch, Bob had never even seen a Houston toad, so why all this fuss over its possible extinction?  Why should anybody care about the fate of this obscure little amphibian that was throwing a wrench into everybody’s business?  A ruling of jeopardy would affect not just ranchers, but everybody involved with real estate.  Developers would be seriously inconvenienced, as well as all the bankers and lawyers who did business with the developers.

Bob wasn’t too emotional over the fate of the Houston toad, but he did care about the wellbeing of Bastrop County and all his many friends in the area, and he realized early on that the toad problem was not going to disappear just because the Bastrop community didn’t want to deal with it.  Rather than waiting for proclamations to come down from Washington, Bob wanted to have a seat at the table where decisions would be made about protecting the toad, so he helped organize a task force including Bastrop ranchers, developers, bankers, and lawyers, as well as representatives from Texas Parks and Wildlife, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Defense, The Nature Conservancy, the Forest Service, Texas AgriLife Extension, and the Texas Department of Agriculture.  He wanted to hear what the environmentalists had to say, and he was not intimidated by the federal government.  “Hey, we pay their salaries.  They work for us.”

For his efforts at mediation, he was called a sell-out and a crazy person by some of his neighbors who preferred to fight.  But Bob Long is a relationship person.  He felt certain that a spirit of cooperation would trump confrontation. 

Like most committees, the Bastrop task force had a lot of tedious meetings without making any progress.  But from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bob learned about Safe Harbor Agreements, a voluntary partnership in which private landowners aid in the recovery of an endangered species in exchange for assurances that no additional management activities will be required of them during the period of the agreement.  Bob was impatient to get the task force off dead center, so he persuaded the USFWS to let him enter a Safe Harbor Agreement for a manageable ten years rather than the daunting “perpetuity”.  If it wasn’t working out, at the end of ten years he could go back to business as usual.

The Safe Harbor Agreement meant that Bob had to keep his cattle out of a pond on his property during the toad’s breeding season, but Texas Parks and Wildlife paid for a fence and Environmental Defense helped install a watering trough for the cattle outside the fence.  The Longs also had to pull some cedars, plant some native grasses, and control fire ants.

Controlled burns, which were prescribed by the agreement, turned out to be hugely beneficial last summer.  The areas of the ranch that had already been cleared of excess underbrush by controlled burns escaped the massive destruction of the superheated wildfires.

Bob does not consider himself an environmentalist like his son, Dr. Josh.  He prefers the term conservationist.  The conservation measures required by the Safe Harbor Agreement have resulted in increased wildlife, including wood ducks and wild turkey, excellent for hunting.  The toad pond has become a haven for birds.  With the many birds come predators such as fox, bobcat, and even a mountain lion.

But Bob does not go looking for toads around his pond, so he wasn’t sure how they are doing these days.  To find out I called Dr. Michael Forstner, biologist at Texas State and world expert on Houston toads.  Dr. Forstner says Bastrop County is the Houston toad’s Alamo; it has nowhere else to run.  The next 5 years will be critical to the toad’s survival, requiring not only habitat protection but also breeding programs and re-introduction into wetlands like the Long’s pond. 

But does it matter if the Houston toad survives?  Isn’t this a lot of trouble for a two inch creature that sings around a pond?  Dr. Forstner explains that Houston toads are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine.  Just as the death of a canary would signal the presence of deadly gases in the mine, the toads have been revealing for a decade the degradation of the Bastrop forests, a degradation confirmed by the wildfires. The citizens of Bastrop County chose to live there because of the natural character of the area.  “They don’t want to live in Round Rock,” he says, referring apologetically to Williamson County’s rapid development.  The Houston toad is a strong ally in the quest to keep Bastrop County’s ecosystem healthy and natural.  If the forests do well, the creatures that depend on the forests will do well, including the people.

Bob Long, preacher and rancher, doesn’t know what will happen to the Houston toad in the future, but he cares about stewardship of the land and will keep on doing his part.  “I will set the habitat so it can survive if God wants it to survive.”