Don’t Worry, Use Plastic

The New York Times Science Section gives you a list of things NOT to worry about.

I appreciate topics #2-6, though their criteria isn’t sufficiently comprehensive, focusing, for example, solely on carbon footprints and not larger socio-economic or other environmental factors. Each item is expanded upon with my commentary after the fold.

  • Your car’s planet-destroying A/C
  • Forbidden fruits from afar
  • Carcinogenic cellphones
  • Evil plastic bags
  • Toxic plastic bottles

2. Your car’s planet-destroying A/C. No matter how guilty you feel about your carbon footprint, you don’t have to swelter on the highway to the beach. After doing tests at 65 miles per hour, the mileage experts at edmunds.com report that the aerodynamic drag from opening the windows cancels out any fuel savings from turning off the air-conditioner.

I agree this argument as far as it goes since the AC freon/ozone concerns have been addressed by the Montreal Protocols. Idling or city driving with AC is another story.

3. Forbidden fruits from afar. Do you dare to eat a kiwi? Sure, because more “food miles” do not equal more greenhouse emissions. Food from other countries is often produced and shipped much more efficiently than domestic food, particularly if the local producers are hauling their wares around in small trucks. One study showed that apples shipped from New Zealand to Britain had a smaller carbon footprint than apples grown and sold in Britain.

Food miles is but one criteria. On the one hand, one may value the competitive advantage of off-season/tropical locales and applaud developing nations export industries, especially when internally owned. However, the dangers of a Banana Republic are well documented To the extent that developing nations are pushed by international financial consideration to increase exports, exotic flowers and fruits may take up the best farmland. Indeed, a nation cannot eat the coffee it produces.

4. Carcinogenic cellphones. Some prominent brain surgeons made news on Larry King’s show this year with their fears of cellphones, thereby establishing once and for all that epidemiology is not brain surgery — it’s more complicated. As my colleague Tara Parker-Pope has noted, there is no known biological mechanism for the phones’ non-ionizing radiation to cause cancer, and epidemiological studies have failed to find consistent links between cancer and cellphones.

It’s always possible today’s worried doctors will be vindicated, but I’d bet they’ll be remembered more like the promoters of the old cancer-from-power-lines menace — or like James Thurber’s grandmother, who covered up her wall outlets to stop electricity from leaking. Driving while talking on a phone is a definite risk, but you’re better off worrying about other cars rather than cancer.

Let’s hope so.

5. Evil plastic bags. Take it from the Environmental Protection Agency : paper bags are not better for the environment than plastic bags. If anything, the evidence from life-cycle analyses favors plastic bags. They require much less energy — and greenhouse emissions — to manufacture, ship and recycle. They generate less air and water pollution. And they take up much less space in landfills.

I agree with the science here so far, though the landscape of many developing countries is literally littered with plastic shopping bags. Ech! Let’s run the numbers on canvass bags vs. disposable.

6. Toxic plastic bottles. For years panels of experts repeatedly approved the use of bisphenol-a, or BPA, which is used in polycarbonate bottles and many other plastic products. Yes, it could be harmful if given in huge doses to rodents, but so can the natural chemicals in countless foods we eat every day. Dose makes the poison.

But this year, after a campaign by a few researchers and activists, one federal panel expressed some concern about BPA in baby bottles. Panic ensued. Even though there was zero evidence of harm to humans, Wal-Mart pulled BPA-containing products from its shelves, and politicians began talking about BPA bans. Some experts fear product recalls that could make this the most expensive health scare in history.

Nalgene has already announced that it will take BPA out of its wonderfully sturdy water bottles. Given the publicity, the company probably had no choice. But my old blue-capped Nalgene bottle, the one with BPA that survived glaciers, jungles and deserts, is still sitting right next to me, filled with drinking water. If they ever try recalling it, they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead fingers.

A good example of a recent “health scare.”

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