Backyard Talk

Halloween's Toxic Troubles

This Halloween, Hurricane Sandy left behind toxic troubles from sewage and flooded hazardous waste sites in the New York City area. Huffington Post reported that, “Left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the toxic stew may threaten the health of residents already dealing with more direct damages from the disaster. “Normally, sewer overflows are just discharged into waterways and humans that generate the sewage can avoid the consequences by avoiding the water,” said John Lipscomb of the clean water advocacy group Riverkeeper. “But in this case, that waste has come back into our communities.”

One particular concern is the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn, which abuts a 1.8 mile canal that was recently designated a Superfund cleanup site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due to a legacy of industrial pollution and sewage discharges. While a storm surge of up to 11 feet had been predicted, the confluence of Sandy and a full-moon high tide exceeded expectations: Waters rose a record 13 feet in New York Harbor. Judith Enck, regional administrator for the EPA region that includes New York, told The Huffington Post that preparations for such a pollution event are difficult regardless of how accurate the weather forecast. “Little can be done in the hours or days in advance of major storms that were experienced last night,” said Enck. “Instead, multi-year improvements need to be made. The situation illustrated the need to clean up urban waters and the benefits of a comprehensive Superfund cleanup.” The best officials could do was urge residents to steer clear of the contaminated waters.

While a storm surge of up to 11 feet had been predicted, the confluence of Sandy and a full-moon high tide exceeded expectations: Waters rose a record 13 feet in New York Harbor. A similar post-Sandy scene played out at New York City’s other Superfund site, Newtown Creek, a waterway that forms the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Combined sewage overflows, so-called CSOs, are also nothing new for New York City. A number of older U.S. communities — including a number of East Coast cities affected by Sandy — sit atop antiquated plumbing that carries sewage, industrial wastewater and rainwater together to treatment plants. As little as a quarter-inch of rain can be enough to overburden the multi-use pipes in New York City and trigger a CSO, according to Riverkeeper. “What happened last night in terms of CSO releases is what happens chronically in wet weather events throughout the year,” said Lipscomb, pointing out that 27 billion gallons worth of the mix spills into New York Harbor every year. “You can think about this like an Exxon Valdez accident, but instead of there being one contaminant it’s a zillion contaminants — from floatables to dissolvables to containers of contaminants — and instead of one location, there’s a zillion point sources,” Lipscomb said. “This is a stunning pollution event. I don’t think the harbor has ever taken a hit like today.”

Backyard Talk

When our children are sent off to day care – are they breathing in toxic phthalates?

When considering day care, more than a few related topics could come to mind: children, toys, play, and a safe environment are probably some to just name a few. However, although children at day care may be under the supervision of responsible adults and having a great time with their playmates, they may be at risk for a danger most parents would have no idea about — toxic chemicals in the day care environment.

A new study of day care centers found a toxic cocktail of chemicals lurking in the air and dust, including phthalates, chemicals that are so toxic they’ve been banned in toys across the globe.

The research, funded by the California Air Resources Board (CARB), is the first-ever detailed analysis of environmental contaminants and exposures for California day care centers. It covered 40 early childhood education facilities.

“Children are more vulnerable to the health effects of environmental contaminants, and many small children spend as much as 10 hours per day, five days a week, in child care centers,” said study lead author Asa Bradman, associate director of the UC Berkeley Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health (CERCH).

Phthalates Widespread in Daycare Centers

Phthalates are chemicals commonly used to make vinyl building materials such as flooring soft and flexible.  These building materials are commonly used in schools and day care centers, even though safer biobased alternatives like linoleum are available.

In the new study, phthalates were found in 100% of the air and dust samples inside daycare centers.  The report noted that,

“Phthalate compounds, detected in 100% of the air and dust samples, have been shown to disrupt normal hormone function in animals. There are no health-based benchmarks to evaluate phthalate levels in air. Of all compounds measured in dust, the highest were the phthalates di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBP), with medians of 172.2 and 46.8 μg/g, respectively.”

Oy.  Every single sample.

Phthalates have no place inside day care centers or schools, and are brought to us by BIG CHEM.  They are harmful to children’s health.  The researchers stated that

“Phthalate compounds are on the California Proposition 65 list as developmental toxins, and have been found to contaminate indoor environments.Studies have associated phthalate exposures with bronchial obstruction, allergies, and asthma in young children, and they are likely endocrine disruptors in humans.”

US EPA: Children Face Highest Exposures to Phthalates

According to the EPA,

“Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination survey (NHANES) indicates widespread exposure of the general population to phthalates. Biomonitoring data from amniotic fluid and urine have demonstrated that humans are exposed to phthalates in utero, as infants, during puberty, and in adult life, and that people are exposed to several phthalates at once…NHANES detected a DEHP urinary metabolite in 78% of the 2541 samples tested with women having a higher exposure than men. Children have been reported as having the highest exposures; specifically to DEHP, DBP, BBP and DnOP…Children are exposed to phthalates through environmental sources (e.g., air, water, food) as well as consumer products (e.g., toys)…Children’s estimated exposures are often greater than those in adults which may be due to increased intakes of food, water, and air on a bodyweight basis, as well children’s unique exposure pathways such as mouthing of objects and ingestion of non-food items. The 1999-2000 and 2001-2002 biomonitoring data in the Third National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals demonstrate that children have the highest exposures to phthalates of all groups monitored, and other biomonitoring data indicate in utero exposures to phthalates.”

Phthalates Banned in Toys in the US and Around the World

Phthalates were banned in toys in the United States in 2008.  Similar bans have been enacted by the states of California, Washington and Vermont.

Restrictions or bans have been placed on phthalates in PVC toys in the entire European Union, Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Iceland Mexico, Norway, and Sweden.

While phthalates have been banned in toys, similar protections do not exist for day care centers and our schools.

Insane right?

Why are they still allowed in daycare centers and schools?

Backyard Talk

Halloween Nightmare

I dreamed that just as I entered a Halloween haunted house the first monster I ran into was Frackenstine.  Just like the book Frankenstein written by Mary Shelley about a creature produced by an unorthodox scientific experiment I noticed that the Frackenstine that stood before me was also made up by combining many parts.  Frackenstines legs turned out to be the Ohio legislature that gave the monster his legs to make his way around Ohio, his torso was made of the Ohio oil and gas industry, his arms were the different state agencies that gave the monster the strength to strong-arm Ohio communities by not allowing citizens or local government to have any say into whether or not they wanted this massive industrial process to destroy their community.  The Frackenstine monster was so big I was having a hard time seeing who or what made up the head  but as I moved farther away from the monster I could see that the monsters head was Ohio’s own governor, Governor John Kasich who has become the mouthpiece and cheerleader for industry.

Down a long dark hallway I came to a closed door, as I opened the door I saw a room full of bubbling cauldrons.  As I looked around the room I saw thousands of Material Safety Data Sheets with all of the toxic chemicals blacked out.  There was also a flashing sign that warned of radiation.  While trying to read all of the signs I was suddenly approached by someone dressing in a hazardous materials moonsuit telling me that bubbling brew was safe and not to worry.  Even though he was dressed in protective garb he informed me that I was not allowed to know what was in the bubbling toxic brew and the door was quickly closed in my face.  As the door closed I could hear the sinister laugh of a crazy person who had spent too much time inhaling the toxic vapors of the bubbling cauldrons full of fracking fluid.

As I continued down the dark hallway I turned a corner and was face to face with a Vampire with blood dripping from his fangs. NO wait, it wasn’t blood dripping, I realized his fangs are drilling rigs that were dripping oil and he is hungry for more and more.  He can’t get enough; he is sinking his rigs into hundreds of thousands of acres of Mother Earth just to see if he can find more oil or gas to feed his needs.  I thought if I can just hold out until dawn the sun would destroy this vampire, but I was so wrong.

As I was about to exit the haunted house I heard the screams of the banshee foretelling the death of life as we know it.  No longer will we have local communities where we can cross the street without worrying about being hit by one of the thousands of trucks or being harassed by out of state workers that have no since of pride for the community.  We face industrial facilities in places where they have no business being in.

But wait, I suddenly realized I was not asleep, I was not having a nightmare.  What I had thought was a horrible nightmare was indeed reality for many communities in Ohio and across the nation that are faced with the nightmare known as fracking.

Backyard Talk

Let's Debate the Real Facts Tonight-When Jobs Are Raised

Tonight’s debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney is about foreign policy. However, the issue of jobs is going to be injected because that is THE talking point for both candidates. Yet green clean jobs and economic growth is almost never mentioned as if it were a curse word.

Neither candidate is likely to mention the fact, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institute, that sectors like clean energy, green building, and efficient transport employ 2.7 million workers — more than the biosciences and fossil fuel sectors. Furthermore, these jobs actually pay better than an average job. The Brookings report show, yet again, that environmental sustainability isn’t some passing fad or a feel-good exercise, it’s a natural progression of the economy. If we could only get our leaders to pay attention.

Another interesting fact that Brookings reported is that the jobs created from 2008-2009 grew at almost double what the overall economy grew during those same years. An analysis from the Center for American Progress found that clean-energy investments create about 16.7 jobs for every $1 million in spending. Spending on fossil fuels, by contrast, generates 5.3 jobs per $1 million in spending. Why isn’t this being talked about in the debates or on the campaign trail of either candidate? The most important take-away from the report is that the clean economy — which has become a large portion of our overall economy — comes with immense benefits beyond the obvious environmental factors. People will be less exposed to chemicals and other toxins associated with the fossil fuel industry, resulting in less disease, special educational teachers and millions of dollars spent cleaning up the mess.

China is likely to be mentioned in this debate but I’ll bet neither candidate will talk about China’s investments in clean energy. According to the report American firms are losing market share both at home and abroad to competitors from other nations. An enormous part of the answer has to do with China’s ability to channel vast sums of affordable capital into innovative large-scale deployment projects—something that the U.S. continues to struggle with. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2010, China put into place a staggering $54.4 billion in clean energy investments. Of this, asset financing—funding for hard assets like wind farms and solar arrays—accounted for more than $47 billion of the total. By contrast, U.S. private investment in clean energy totaled $34 billion, with just $21 billion or so in asset finance. Now the gap is widening further, with Chinese asset finance investment in at $10.9 billion as compared to just $2 billion in the United States. Could this investment by China be because China isn’t run by or owned by the large oil and gas industries?

The recent report confirms that these exciting clean-energy industries really are growing as fast as we think they are. The challenge is to get to our elected leaders and those running for election and demand that they stop talking about out-dated energy options and job creation and begin moving on the investments that will provide good wages, environmentally safer and economically better futures for all Americans.

Backyard Talk

Pioneering Green Carpeting Manufacturer Interface Ends its Defense of PVC

After years of defending PVC as an ecologically sustainable industrial material, Interface, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers and a pioneer in sustainable business, has announced that it will be eliminating virgin PVC from its entire product line by 2020.

The announcement comes as a welcome end to a long-standing conflict between the company and its core constituency of ecologically-minded consumers and businesses. In recent years, other major carpet manufacturers including Shaw and Milliken have phased PVC out of their product lines, but Interface had not followed suit. In a recent article in GreenBiz, the company’s sustainability team writes about the painful but productive process of incorporating vinyl’s full life-cycle impacts into its definition of sustainability.

Vinyl is the plastic environmentalists love to hate because of its life-cycle toxicity issues, which occur both upstream (emissions from plastic production) and downstream (if it gets burned under uncontrolled conditions). In addition, PVC always contains other chemical additives, some of which (e.g., heavy-metal stabilizers) may be quite toxic. While our Restricted Substances List adequately screens out toxic additives, it is not designed to account for these life-cycle toxicity issues.

As an early champion of lifecycle assessment (LCA), we were confident that we had a tool to account for the life-cycle of PVC. And while LCA has proven to be a reliable tool for more holistic decision-making, especially for considering carbon footprint or water impacts, it is notoriously weak at evaluating human health impacts like toxicity.

Even with robust life-cycle toxicity data (such as the chlorinated emissions from a PVC supplier), plotting it in a graph next to greenhouse gas emissions is scientifically meaningless and emotionally explosive, given that potential health impacts are far more personal and comprehensible.

Though it spent years defending PVC, in 2008 Interface began working more closely with its critics and adjusting its industrial criteria. The policy it has developed eliminates the use of virgin PVC by 2020, while reusing and diverting from the landfill millions of pounds of PVC carpet-backing currently in the waste-stream. It’s a major step forward for the carpeting industry, and we at CHEJ are glad to have Interface in our corner.

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image credit: iStockphoto

For me personally, first learning about Interface’s story was an “ah-ha” moment. I’d seen the movie “The Corporation,” in which Interface’s founder and long-time CEO, the late Ray Anderson, speaks dramatically of his conversion to an ecological approach to business. He realized that Interface’s extraction and production practices amounted to “the way of The Plunderer, plundering something that’s not mine, something that belongs to every creature on Earth.” I later read Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, and learned with great excitement about the ways in which ecological thinking had transformed not only the contents of Interface’s carpet, but their whole business model.

Anderson and his team realized that businesses don’t want to own carpet — they want the service of floor covering. They combined this insight with the fact that when standard broadloom carpet is replaced due to worn spots, traditionally once every ten years, huge amounts of perfectly good carpet gets torn out and landfilled. There is more carpeting in US landfills than almost any other product, much of it toxic.

In response to these two realities, the company fundamentally rethought their business approach. Interface created modular carpet tiles, allowing worn areas to be replaced individually; they then leased these tiles to businesses rather than selling them, taking the worn tiles back to the factory; and they developed a higher quality, less toxic, resilient carpet product called Solenium to cover the tiles, which could be completely remanufactured into itself, retaining the value of the materials and further reducing waste.

Reading about this type of holistic, innovative approach to industry was eye-opening. It was proof that businesses can make money by being smart and following their values, by protecting their customers’ health and the environment rather than endangering it. Interface is to be commended for finally incorporating PVC-elimination into its vision. I look forward to seeing where that vision it takes the company next.


Backyard Talk

BPA in Receipts – The chemical that’s everywhere, or so it seems

It’s very likely that you’ve heard of a chemical called BPA or bisphenol A. It’s been in the news because it’s an endocrine disrupting chemical used in making plastic products and in the lining of metal cans. The problem is that BPA leaches out of plastic bottles, canned foods and other products and gets into the food and drink. Trace amounts of BPA have been found in the urine of at least 90% of Americans.  BPA mimics the hormone estrogen in the body and has been linked to reproductive and developmental abnormalities as well as other adverse health effects.

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Source: American Chemical Society

Concerns about these adverse health effects led Canada to define BPA as a toxic substance and 11 states to ban its use in baby bottles and sippy cups. The FDA followed suit in July of this year. Concerns remain however about BPA leaching into infant formula, food and beverages. Approximately eight billion pounds of BPA are used each year worldwide.

Although diet is the primary route of exposure to BPA, research has shown that it can also be absorbed though the skin in a less familiar way – the handling of receipts of all kinds. BPA is the primary chemical used in cash register and thermal receipts commonly used in stores, ATM machines, gas stations, various tickets, and many other uses. BPA is used as a color developer for the printing dye. It’s applied as powder coating that acts in the presence of heat to produce an image without ink. The problem here is that the chemical is not bound to the paper, so it rubs off when you handle the receipt. It gets on your fingers and quickly gets into your blood stream. If you handle receipts every day, and it accumulates in the body, you increase your risk. This is especially a concern for workers who handle receipts all day long, or for pregnant women.

While there’s no way to tell if a receipt contains BPA or not, a number of studies have tested receipts for BPA. One study reported in the New York Times of 103 thermal receipts collected from cities in the U.S., Japan, South Korea and Vietnam in 2010 and 2011 found 94% of the receipts to contain BPA. All of the receipts in the U.S. had traces of BPA, even some marked as BPA-free. A study by researchers in Boston found 8 of 10 cash register receipts had BPA, and a study by the Environmental Working Group in 2010 found 14 of 36 receipts collected from fast food restaurants, retailers, grocery stores, gas stations and post offices tested positive for BPA.

Although studies in animals have found that very low concentrations of BPA can produce adverse effects, it’s unclear what level of exposure in people can produce adverse effects. It’s also unclear how much exposure from thermal receipts contributes to a person’s total exposure to BPA. Diet remains the primary route of exposure. It is clear, however, that there are readily available alternatives to BPA and this is another source of chemical contamination that can easily be eliminated. It’s also easy to say “no thank you,” when asked if you want your receipt.


Backyard Talk

Our Children's Schools Matter – When We Fail-They Fail

It is sad that across the country as new youngsters are entering school they are placed in harm’s way. Their emotions are mixed worried about leaving their home, daily environment and routine, while at the same time excited about their new experiences.  But toxic dangers in the air or nearby are not part of their mantra.

Yet in schools across the country parents are concerned that the location of the school building will threaten the health of their children and possible their children’s ability to lean. For example, in Richmond, Virginia there is a petition, asking the Richmond School Board to ensure the preschoolers of Norrell Elementary, near a landfill are being educated in a safe environment.  Although the petition has gained some national attention to an issue, there hasn’t been any resolution to longstanding concerns to Richmond, Virginia residents.  It hasn’t provided the pressure yet to force authorities to answer parents questions.

It has with 27,370 signatures created awareness about schools on landfills across the country and beyond. And, signatures on this petition has provided energy to beleaguered city residents who feel like they’ve been disregarded and disrespected by authorities.  A new round of testing has been committed of the school building grounds near the landfill but there is no evidence of safety.

“Local resident Kim Allen said, these developments have empowered us as we’ve come to know ourselves as people who make a difference in our community.  I, and other private citizens like me, are lending a voice to concern for the safety of children, children like my four-year-old nephew Malachi. We speak on behalf of ourselves and our families. Being a private citizen is a privilege and a powerful place to stand when addressing the safety of the children who attend Norrell Elementary school.

The question I asked myself was, Would I be okay with Malachi being in the Norrell School building for 6 hours a day, 5 days a week?  My answer . . . I don’t know. Given that concern and the urgent nature of the matter, I helped to initiate the petition.”

Despite working for over thirty years at CHEJ I’m still shocked by the blatant disregard for children’s health year after year.  Schools continue to be built on or near dumpsites like Ms. Allen speaks about or the school built in Detroit literally on top of a Superfund site. Most of these schools, not surprisingly, serve low wealth and communities of color.

Further harming everyone in the school family, when the children fail at the standardized testing it is the parents or the teachers fault — not the fault of the chemicals that inhabit their ability to learn or cause them to be sick and absent too often from school to keep up.

In Houston, Texas their recently built high school, which houses 3,500 students, is encircled by a dozen chemical facilities.  So close that if there is an accident or release at any of them, the children are trapped, left only to put wet paper towels along the window sills.  Yet, the releases from these facilities are constant and as children enter, leave or go outdoors for recess or sports they are exposed to air pollution daily.  Like the other schools when these young people fail at meeting the goals of standardized testing their parents and teachers are blamed.

It is time for all Americans to stand up and speak out about putting our children in harm’s way.  It is our tax dollars that are building these schools and we should have laws that compel schools authorities to build places of learning in safe environments.  Enough is enough.  Our children matter and are the future of our country.

Backyard Talk

Wishing for a PVC-free Disney

When we first got the lab results back for our report on phthalates in children’s vinyl (polyvinyl chloride or PVC) school supplies, we were utterly shocked by all of the Disney school supplies that contained such high levels of these toxic chemicals.

Disney Princess and Spider Man lunchboxes were chock full of these harmful chemicals, at levels so high they would be banned if they were toys.  For instance, a Disney Princess Lunchbox (pictured to the right) contained an estimated 29,800 ppm of DEHP. If this product were a children’s toy, this would be over 29 times the limit set by the federal ban!  29 times!

A growing body of scientific evidence has found these vinyl softening chemicals linked to asthma and other serious health problems on the rise in children.

California Innovations Eliminates PVC in Lunchboxes

Soon after the report was published, we were contacted by a manufacturer of Disney lunchboxes, California Innovations, who was upset their products were associated with PVC.

You see, California Innovations sells a lot of Disney branded lunchboxes, and they started phasing out PVC in their lunchboxes back in 2005, over seven years ago.

And today, none of their lunchboxes, including their Disney branded products, contain vinyl.


“As the market leader in insulated lunch packs, we believe it is our number one responsibility, both to our consumers and to the industry that we represent, to produce products that are safe in all respects. The Ultra Safe® Protection System (USPS), designed exclusively by California Innovations is an extremely strict quality control standard that monitors every stage of the production process so as to ensure that all of our products are safe. To that end, all of our Disney, California Innovations, Arctic Zone and Columbia branded lunch products are PVC and BPA free, lead and phthalate safe and all exposed interior components are  FDA compliant”

–          Mel Mogil, President, California Innovations

The company went on to tell us that, “It did not make logical sense to us at California Innovations that Congress would limit six phthalates for toys and mouthable objects but not for children’s lunch bags and school supplies.”

We applaud California Innovations for doing what’s right for our children by eliminating PVC from their children’s lunchboxes.

If California Innovations can do it, other Disney licensees can as well!

Parents to Disney: No More Toxic Chemicals

While California Innovations has eliminated the use of vinyl, other Disney branded products continue to contain these harmful chemicals.

Moms and dads across America are furious that Disney continues to sell vinyl school supplies, even though companies like California Innovations have shown us that it’s possible to sell children’s school supplies without these harmful chemicals.

Lori Alper, an amazing green mom from Massachusetts, decided to take action into her own hands after reading our report.  She  started a petition on calling on Disney to get these toxic chemicals out of school supplies.  Almost overnight, the petition has galvanized signatures from thousands of parents across the country.

Today the petition has over 57,000 signatures! The fine folks over at have also started a petition to Disney, which has also been signed by thousands of parents, particularly outraged moms!

Watch this TV story to find out more about Lori’s petition to Disney:

Will Disney Listen to our Wishes?

Will Disney listen to the wishes and dreams of moms and dads across America, that want safe products for their children?

The company is currently in the process of developing a “restricted substance list”, which many other companies have done.   They state they will:

“By 2013, share a restricted substance list with our vendors and licensees…Disney thinks globally and strategically to anticipate regulations as they apply to chemicals and substances of concern. We canvass different sources – from jurisdictions, NGOs, and consumer advocacy groups to medical studies – to anticipate the next regulated substance. Our ultimate goal is to proactively reduce or eliminate substances of concern before it is required and to provide safe products and experiences for our customers.”

This presents the company a unique opportunity to require all their licensees to eliminate the use of phthalates and vinyl.  If phthalates and vinyl aren’t substances of concern, we don’t know what are!

Forward thinking businesses like Google, Apple and Nike have already committed to eliminating phthalates and vinyl.

The only question is, will Disney?

We’re wishing for a PVC-free Disney.

Backyard Talk

Remembering Barry Commoner

Earlier this week the environmental movement lost one of its most innovative and creative leaders. Barry Commoner, considered by many to be the founder of the modern ecology movement passed away at the age of 95 in Manhattan, NY. Along with Rachel Carson Barry Commoner was one of the most influential and prominent environmentalists in American history.

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CHEJ’s Lois Gibbs presents achievement award to Barry Commoner in 2010.

For more than 60 years, Barry Commoner played a pivotal role in the environmental movement. He spoke out against nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s, led the movement to make scientific information available to the public in the 1960s, and participated in the energy debates of the 1970s. More recently he spoke to the dangers of dioxin and incinerators and pioneered research on recycling, organic farming and toxic chemical substitution. He was also among the first to link environmental issues to broader issues of social and economic justice and felt that environmental problems could not be solved without also addressing the problems of poverty, injustice, racism and public health.

Born to Russian immigrants in 1917, Commoner grew up in Brooklyn, NY, was educated at Columbia University and earned a PhD from Harvard in cellular biology in 1941. After serving in the war, he took a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis, MO where for 34 years he wrote about the environmental consequences of the post WW II industrial and chemical revolution. It was here that he became interested in the nuclear tests the U.S. was conducting in Nevada and the impact on the American public from the fallout from those tests. When he tried to find out more about the fallout tests, Commoner was told that the information was classified and not available to the public.

This rejection struck at the heart of Commoner’s sense of justice and scientific integrity and he began a public campaign to address the importance of open communication of science between government, corporations and the public. As Commoner saw it, the heart of science was open communication, so secrecy whether imposed by government or by private corporations undermined the very nature of science.

At Commoner’s 80th birthday celebration, Peter Montague credited Commoner with introducing many fundamental ideas that are the heart of the grassroots environmental health and justice movement. “In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Commoner developed many of the fundamental ideas that today propel the burgeoning movement of grassroots environmentalism. Specifically, in Commoner’s early writings, I find the following ideas that today seem entirely contemporary and widely accepted – moral wisdom resides in citizens; scientists have no special competence in moral matters; scientists have an obligation to make alliance with citizens; pollution must be prevented, it cannot be successfully managed; the burden of proof lies properly with the polluter; citizens have a right to know; the precautionary principle should guide our decisions; environmental impact assessment is a necessary tool; and risk assessment is political, not scientific.”

Barry Commoner made clear that scientists have a social responsibility to make their work relevant and understandable to the public. He laid the foundation for bridging science with public policy and citizen activism.   He maintained that scientists had an obligation to make scientific information accessible to the general public and that the public not only had the right to be involved in public debates that involved scientific questions but an obligation.

In his best selling book, The Closing Circle, Commoner introduced the idea of sustainability writing that there’s only one planet, where everything is connected to everything else and where what affects one, affects all.  He felt that we needed to design and make products that didn’t disrupt the delicate balance between people and nature. And he railed against the corporate need for growth that emphasized profits and technological progress with little regard for the consequences and the impact on the planet.

Few people made greater contributions to protecting and improving the environment than Barry Commoner as a scientist, teacher and advocate. He will greatly be missed.

To read more about Barry Commoner see


Backyard Talk

50 Years Later, Chemical Barrage Goes On

The  Boston Globe’s excellent editorial this week focused on the 50th anniversary of the book Silent Spring. “If Rachel Carson were alive to mark the 50th anniversary of her book “Silent Spring,” her head would spin in both wonder and anger. The evidence of her influence literally flies all around us today, because Carson documented how pesticides were polluting the environment and harming birds and other animals. She warned that a “chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life.”

Rachel Carson is seen at Woods Hole, Maine, in 1951, 11 years before she published “Silent Spring.”
Her reporting led to the eventual ban in the United States of DDT and other compounds that were originally hailed as miracle weapons against disease-bearing or crop-eating insects. That gave us back the bald eagle and the perigrine falcon and returned vibrant aquatic life to ponds and waterways.

But we never came close to stopping the chemical barrage. The evidence is abundantly clear that even as eagles soar above, Americans are poisoning themselves in unprecedented ways, with the net result being that my child’s generation may have a life expectancy less than mine. Every week seems to bring new information on how the chemicals we use for our own convenience are affecting our environment and our health — perhaps more profoundly than when Carson wrote in the early 1960s.

Just last month, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that high levels of the chemical BPA, which is used to strengthen plastic bottles and prevent corrosion in food cans, are associated with obesity. “Clearly bad diet and lack of exercise are the leading contributors to childhood obesity, but this study suggests a significant role for environmental, particularly chemical factors in that epidemic,” lead author Leonardo Trasande of New York University’s medical school told ABC News.” 

To see the rest of the editorial go to