Dear EarthTalk: Why are “forever chemicals” so bad, and how can I avoid them? ~ M.N., via email
“Forever chemicals” are types of highly persistent and toxic synthetic chemicals widely used in many industries, including firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, food packaging and water-resistant clothing. These chemicals are called “forever” because they do not break down easily in the environment and can persist for decades or even centuries, accumulating in soil, water and air.
The most common types of forever chemicals are per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which include compounds such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFAS have been linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, immune system damage, hormone disruption and developmental delays. The problem with forever chemicals is that they can accumulate in our bodies over time, as well as in the bodies of animals and plants, leading to long-term health and environmental consequences. Because these chemicals do not break down easily in the environment, they can also contaminate soil, water and air, potentially impacting entire ecosystems.
To avoid exposure to forever chemicals, there are several steps you can take. First, avoid using non-stick cookware and other products that contain PFAS. Instead, opt for stainless steel, cast iron or ceramic cookware. Secondly, avoid using products that are labeled water-resistant, stain-resistant or grease-resistant, as they may contain PFAS. Thirdly, use natural, organic and biodegradable cleaning products instead of conventional cleaning products that may contain PFAS. When shopping for food, choose products that are packaged in glass, metal or paper containers instead of plastic containers, as plastic can contain PFAS. Finally, if you live in an area where PFAS contamination is a concern, consider installing a water filtration system that is designed to remove these chemicals.
According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group, a watchdog organization that tracks contaminants and chemicals in food, health and beauty products, nearly all Americans, including newborn babies, have forever chemicals in their bloodstreams, while 200 million of us may well be drinking tap water contaminated with these toxins. And we’re not the only ones at risk. Researchers have found traces of forever chemicals in wildlife all over the world, including some endangered species. Who would’ve thought that such a risk would threaten polar bears in the Arctic let alone tigers, monkeys and pandas in milder locales and even dolphins and fish across the world’s oceans?
Forever chemicals have been ubiquitous in our ecosystems and bloodstreams for decades, but it wasn’t until March 2023 that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started to address the issue by setting Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) goals for PFAS and related persistent chemicals in drinking water supplies. While this might be too little too late for those of us exposed to these toxins year after year, at least it’s a step in the right direction. “Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS chemicals have devastated the planet by contaminating people, drinking water, and food, including fish and wildlife across the globe,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior scientist at EWG. “The proposed nationwide standards to limit exposure to PFAS in drinking water are a welcome development to address the harms these toxic chemicals have already inflicted upon individuals and communities.”
CONTACT: Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org
Dear EarthTalk: I recently heard the term “slow design.” Can you enlighten? ~ J.M., New York, NY
Slow design is a design philosophy that emphasizes quality, longevity and sustainability. It seeks to counteract the fast-paced, disposable nature of contemporary culture by prioritizing thoughtful, intentional design over mass-produced, trend-driven products. It is about creating objects that are functional and beautiful, and that are crafted with care, using materials that are responsibly sourced and manufactured.
At its core, slow design is about taking a more holistic approach to design. It’s about considering the entire life cycle of a product, from the materials used to make it to how it will be used and disposed of at the end of its life. Look for pieces that are created with sustainably harvested wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as well as “Cradle-to-Cradle” certification awarded to products produced in eco-friendly ways and that can be recycled after use. Slow design seeks to create products that are not just aesthetically pleasing, but that are also sustainable, durable and socially responsible.
One of the key principles of slow design is the idea of “localism.” This means designing products that are made in the same community where they will be used, using materials that are sourced locally whenever possible. By doing this, designers can reduce the carbon footprint of their products, support local economies, and create stronger connections between people and the things they own.
Another important principle of slow design is the concept of “timelessness.” Rather than creating products that are trendy or fashionable, slow design focuses on creating products that are classic and enduring. By doing this, designers can help reduce the amount of waste produced by the fashion and design industries, which are notorious for creating products that are quickly discarded and replaced. One example is what’s been dubbed the “brown furniture revival,” that being wood furnishings that were popular in days gone by but that are seeing a resurgence today due to their timeliness and sturdy quality.
Slow design also emphasizes the importance of craftsmanship and traditional skills. By working with skilled artisans and craftspeople, designers can create products that are not only beautiful and well-made, but that also support traditional forms of production and preserve cultural heritage.
Letting your home grow with you is another key to slow design. “There are those who move into a new place, furnish it in a couple weeks, and are happy to be done decorating,” say Apartment Therapy’s Katie Holdefehr. “Then there are those who see their home as an ongoing project without a specific end date.”
“By not rushing through the process, you can build a home that reflects your life, rather than passing trends,” she adds. “Part of embracing a slower pace is being okay with things that are unfinished.” As such, leave some room and blank wall space for pieces you discover in the future. “If we give ourselves permission to slow down, we may find that home isn’t a static place, but it changes along with us,” concludes Holdefehr.
In short, slow design emphasizes sustainability, durability, and quality over speed and disposability. By creating products that are thoughtfully designed, responsibly sourced, and made to last, slow design seeks to promote a more sustainable and ethical approach to design and consumption.
Dear EarthTalk: I am looking for more stuff I can binge watch on my TV. Any environmental documentaries you’d recommend? — Couch Potato, via email
The power of film is in its capacity to transport viewers to places we might not have been able to go before. Nature documentaries in particular bring us close to ecosystems and species that are beyond most people’s reach. They can reinvigorate the environmental movement, as with An Inconvenient Truth, or expose environmental travesties, like Blackfish’s exposé of Seaworld. Here are a few recent environmental documentaries filled with incredible footage and a wealth of information.
A documentary that touches on the powerful cross section between mental health and nature, The Scale of Hope centers on a former White House climate advisor, Molly Kawahata, as she prepares for an intense climb in Alaska. Kawahata examines the various ways hikers, travelers and climbers can use their passion to advocate for climate conservation in this Patagonia-produced film. Or follow Alex Honnold, a free solo climber famous for his ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, as he travels to the Amazon with National Geographic in Explorer: The Last Tepui. He attempts to get biologist Bruce Means to the top of a tepui while they learn why tepuis are necessary to Amazonian biodiversity.
Take a deep dive into the lives of whales with Secrets of Whales, a mini-docuseries, also produced by National Geographic. Each episode looks at a different whale species and at its relationship dynamics and survival techniques. Another ocean-focused documentary is Seaspiracy, which examines the validity of ‘sustainable’ fisheries and advocates for a fish-free diet to protect marine environments. The filmmakers work shines a light on illegal fishing practices and the detrimental effects of ghost nets and overfishing.
For those interested in examining how their diet can affect climate change, check out Meat Me Halfway with Brian Kateman, an investigative documentary about mindful meat consumption. Kateman founded the reducetarian movement; this movie encourages viewers to reduce their meat intake, as total vegetarianism or veganism isn’t realistic for everybody.
Fire of Love is a visually stunning documentary using footage shot by the two main subjects – volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft. The movie follows the Krafft’s expeditions, from Mt. St. Helens in Washington to Mt. Unzen in Japan, as they perform research on active volcanoes. This documentary also highlights the importance of preparedness for environmental disasters, as they commit to informing at-risk regions about the importance of evacuations.
Against all odds, The Year Earth Changed found the bright side of lockdowns, isolation and travel restrictions: Certain ecosystems thrived during the height of COVID-19 pandemic. Whales were recorded using completely new sounds, able to communicate without boat noises acting as obstacles, and female sea turtles had the benefit of empty beaches during nesting season. The documentary shows the benefits of taking a step back and offering back to nature the space that humans have dominated for decades.
And for a quick but impactful watch, try After Ice. This twelve-minute film compares footage of Icelandic glaciers in the twenty-first century with archival footage from the National Land Survey of Iceland. After dedicating just an hour or two toward one of the documentaries, you might find yourself looking at the environmental movement with a new perspective.
CONTACTS: The Scale of Hope, patagonia.com/stories/the-scale-of-hope/video-124190.html; Seaspiracy, seaspiracy.org; Meat Me Halfway, youtube.com/watch?v=tx96wVA8jd4; Explorer: The Last Tepui, ondisneyplus.disney.com/movie/explorer-the-last-tepui; Secrets of Whales, disneyplus.com/series/secrets-of-the-whales/3aHpgjYaJTM5; Fire of Love, youtube.com/watch?v=p8CDWqP5krk; The Year Earth Changed, https://tv.apple.com/us/movie/the-year-earth-changed/umc.cmc.3fob3t7nfhehpb3ilgynzxmnu; After Ice, vimeo.com/504355699.
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