Recycle … check. Reduce carbon footprint … check. Buy local, organic produce … check, check. I’ve got what I call my “green routine” down pretty well by now. I’ve read a lot about these issues and do what I can do to ameliorate environmental problems. I can rest easy, right?
Wrong. I’ve recently learned that there are problems that are equally as serious as those that make regular headlines in the news, if not more so. The good news is that the directness and proximity of these makes them more solvable than more abstract perils like global warming and ocean acidification.
1) A Problem to Shed Some Dark On
If you live in or near a big city, you know how difficult it is to see even one star at night. Lights from streetlamps, headlights, signs, and other sources create adverse effects like sky glow (a dome of light that forms over a city), glare (light that reflects off windows and other surfaces), light trespass (light that spills over into naturally dark places), and light clutter (bright and confusing groupings of light). Not only does excessive light become annoying and interrupt astronomical observances, but light pollution takes quite a large toll on human and animal health.
Excessive light may cause loss of visual acuity in humans, as well as hypertension and headaches. By interrupting natural rhythms and melatonin secretion in the body, light pollution is a cause of anxiety and insomnia. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) has even linked the suppression of melatonin from light pollution to an increased risk for breast cancer.
More importantly, light pollution has very real and disturbing effects on neighboring species. It confuses animal navigation, alters competitive interactions and the predator-prey relationship, and changes some species’ visual abilities, interrupting their natural cycles of sleeping and wakefulness. For example, light pollution prevents zooplankton like Daphnia from eating surface algae (their vertical migration relies on exact measurements of light intensity) and leads to algae blooms that kill off marine plants and animals. Sea turtle hatchlings also cannot make their way to the ocean because of light pollution, since they find the sea by moving away from the dark silhouettes of dunes on the beach. Many night-blooming flowers, like the aptly-named four o’clocks, are also disturbed by light pollution.
Since the 1980s, members of the dark-sky movement have pitted themselves against light pollution. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) works to encourage the protection of dark spaces and the Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) formed in 1993 in Toronto to protect birds whose night migrations are interrupted by light pollution, causing them to fly into buildings.
The answer here appears simple. Shut off your lights at night. When you leave your office at the end of the day, if you have control over the light switch, shut things down. Turn off all your lights when you go to sleep at night. Don’t leave computer screens on and be sure to set your television on a timer if you habitually fall asleep in front of it. If you must read or work late into the night, buy some dark curtains to protect the outside from your emitted light. Encourage your town officials to cut down on street lamp usage where possible and help to spread awareness of the problem.
2) Sweet Sound of Silence
Like light pollution, noise pollution is a very real problem. Also like light pollution, there are considerable and far-reaching effects for both humans and animals.
From sirens to cell phones, noise is a stressor that can cause health problems. Hypertension, tinnitus, hearing loss, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety are a few of the conditions associated with noise pollution.
Animals also experience stress from noise. More importantly, many species have very sensitive hearing. Noise pollution interrupts natural processes, upsetting predator detection and avoidance, communication of food sources, navigation, and mating calls. Sonar has been linked to the deaths of many beached whales and Zebra finches are shown to be less faithful to their mates when exposed to traffic noise, interrupting the process of sexual selection. These are only two examples of a major problem.
Just as switching off lights can be a straightforward solution, so can reducing the amount of noise we produce. Don’t blast the stereo, honk your horn, or keep generally noisy habits. Car makers should continue to reduce noise generated by car engines and government should continue the work they’ve been doing since the 1970s to construct sound barriers around major roads to contain noise and develop noise codes.
3) One Man’s Medicine Is Another Man’s Poison
More than 40 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, so it is no surprise that a lot of those chemicals end up in our waterways. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that most waterways contain some antibiotics, steroids, synthetic hormones, or other drugs. A study conducted from 1999 to 2000 at Johns Hopkins University found that the drugs most likely to exist at “toxicologically significant levels” are antidepressants, anti-convulsants, anti-cancer drugs, and antimicrobials.
In addition to other concerns, this raises the question of antibiotic resistance, since Americans take an estimated 235 million doses of antibiotics yearly and much of that finds our way into our water sources at sub-therapeutic levels. Their prevalence increases the risk that bacteria will develop resistance and that we will be rendered powerless against harmful microbes.
Although some of these drugs are secreted through human waste, most find their way into water sources when people flush or throw away unused pills. In order to properly discard unused pills, return them to your pharmacy or call your local health department for safe disposal. Do not flush them down the toilet or throw them in with your regular garbage. And if you are taking a course of antibiotics, finish all your pills to prevent drug resistance.
It’s a Boy! It’s a Girl! It’s a … Fish?
Probably the biggest offender in the prescription drug waste is birth control pills. Many women skip doses and simply throw them away. Birth control has been identified as the cause of recent reports of hermaphrodite fish in such places as Colorado and the Potomac basin, among others. Chris Metcalfe, professor of Environmental and Resource Studies at Trent University, Ontario, explains that the levels of 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol, the active ingredient in birth control pills, are enough to cause these changes. The pills have a greater effect than the estrogen-mimicking compounds found in detergents and plastic water bottles combined.
To dispose of birth control pills properly, see the above instructions for prescription drugs. Don’t let your skipped doses go to the fish!
4) Avoid Being a Butthead
As a cause of localized air pollution, smoking ain’t the most environmentally friendly habit in the first place. But if you do smoke, you can do it more responsibly. Thirty percent of all cigarettes end up as litter and according to ButtsOut.net, that equals almost 1.3 trillion cigarettes a year that aren’t disposed of properly.
So what’s the problem? They’re just paper and tobacco, right? Perfectly biodegradable!
Wrong! Cigarettes contain the synthetic polymer cellulose acetate, which never degrades. It only breaks apart after about twelve years. Cigarettes contain more than 4,000 nasty chemicals, from rat poison to rocket fuel. At least forty-three are known carcinogens. These are released into the environment with every smoke and can persist in the filters.
If your health isn’t a good enough reason to quit smoking, let the environment be. But if you just can’t kick the habit, invest in a portable ashtray so that you can dispose of your butts properly. They’ll still end up in a landfill, but I suppose that’s a lesser evil than the beach (where it’s the number one source of litter) or a park.
5) Six-packs: Good for Abs, Bad for Birds
You’ve just drunk the last soda from your six-pack. What do you do with the plastic thingy that holds the cans together? Throw it out? Recycle it?
The best answer involves snipping all the loops out of it, since birds, dolphins, seals, and fish have all been found asphyxiated, their necks caught in six-pack rings. We dump a lot of our trash in the oceans. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Even if we didn’t, much of it finds its way there anyway thanks to litter and wind-borne landfill waste. Plastic six-pack rings are virtually invisible in the water, so sea animals and birds can easily get caught in them.
Any plastic is a true sea menace. Plastic does not biodegrade, but it will break up after a few years. Marine animals near the bottom of the food chain ingest these tiny pieces of plastic, which spread to all sea creatures higher on the food chain. These chemicals can harm these animals’ immune systems and interrupt their hormones.
We shouldn’t be dumping our trash, but it will take time for us to stop. In order to prevent at least one of the major ills with this situation right now, in addition to snipping up those rings so that they’re no longer a strangulation hazard, make sure trash gets put in its right place. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it is an easy step to preventing ocean degradation.
So many environmental problems seem too huge and abstract for us to have any direct impact in finding solutions. The above, however, are straightforward problems with simple solutions. Shut off your light, don’t be noisy, dispose of drugs, cigarette butts, and trash properly, and snip your six-pack rings. That sounds like a green routine I would have no problem following.