9 tips for your health and the planet’s
Aside from pesticide usage and a few other issues, most of us haven’t
worried much about the connections between health issues and the environment.
For our health, we work on our waistlines and fret over our cholesterol
levels. For the environment, we recycle and maybe drive a fuel-efficient
But because of accelerating climate change and the havoc it could wreak,
it’s not so easy to send environmentalism off into its own separate
compartment these days. In February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change said the evidence for global warming is “unequivocal.” Everything
we do now can be measured for its effect on the environment — and
greenhouse gas emissions in particular.
There’s a place for individual responsibility. So, bringing
personal and environmental health together, here are nine “green” health
1. Walk or bike to work. Combining exercise
and a commute builds exercise into your day, which means you don’t
have to summon extra willpower, to say nothing of time, to go to the
gym. If you live too far away, consider walking or biking to public transportation
or driving only part of the way.
2. Go to bed early. Americans weigh more and
are sleeping less. Epidemiologic studies have identified a correlation
between short sleep and being overweight or obese. Meanwhile, all the
lights, televisions, computers, microwave ovens, and music players that
help keep us up at night use electricity, most of it generated by burning
coal and natural gas. By turning in earlier, we’ll dial down our
appetite for kilowatts and maybe food.
3. Turn down the heat and the air conditioning. When
air temperatures are in the thermoneutral zone (TNZ) — which for
humans with their clothes on tends to be in the mid-70s — our metabolisms
don’t have to work so hard to maintain body temperature, and we
burn fewer calories. We’re spending more time in our TNZs these
days because of heating and — particularly — air conditioning.
Some experts believe all that time in the comfort zone is contributing
to the obesity epidemic. By adjusting your thermostat, you may keep your
metabolism from getting lazy and also use less of another kind of energy.
4. Eat fish, but the right kind. Some fish
species are contaminated with pollutants — mercury and PCBs are
the main concern. Stocks of others have been dangerously depleted by
too much fishing. Some groups are working to steer consumers to species
that are in good supply. But making the right “eco-choice” does
involve some homework — maybe a bit too much for many of us. Take
swordfish. Once scarce, populations are almost fully recovered in the
North Atlantic, and the United States has strict rules for swordfish
fishing in the Pacific, where fishing practices threaten endangered sea
turtles. But foreign fleets don’t have to follow those rules, so
not only would you need to know which ocean your swordfish came from
to make an environmentally sensitive choice, you’d also need to
know the origin of the fleet that caught it.
5. Switch to energy-saving light bulbs, but don’t
throw them in the regular trash. Those curlicue compact
fluorescent light bulbs that Home Depot wants you to buy are the
real deal. They use two-thirds less energy than a regular incandescent
bulb and last up to 10 times longer. But all fluorescent bulbs need
mercury to work, and the compact versions contain about five milligrams
of the metal. if you throw them out in the regular trash, that mercury
may end up in the air or water, and, by climbing the food chain,
in the fish on your plate. Call your town or city’s public
works department to find out where you can dispose of fluorescent
light bulbs safely.
6. Learn a lesson from palm oil and good intentions gone
awry. As the tide turns against trans fat, food manufacturers
are scrambling for substitutes. Palm oil has emerged as a candidate.
In Europe, palm oil has also been touted as an environmentally friendly
renewable “biofuel” alternative to fossil fuels like
coal and gas. But to satisfy the growing demand for the tropical
oil, huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest are being cut down
and planted with palm trees. Farmers are also draining and burning
huge swathes of peatlands, which help offset greenhouse emissions
by soaking up carbon. Palm oil is an improvement over trans fat as
far as personal health is concerned, but about half of the fat molecules
in palm oil are saturated, and saturated fat increases cholesterol
levels. The moral of the story is not to be dazzled by alternatives
in either the environmental or personal health realms.
7. Eat local fruits and vegetables. Flying
kiwis in from New Zealand and grapes up from Chile is an energy-intensive
way to fulfill the fruit-and-vegetable imperative. It’s possible
only if energy is cheap, and cheap energy in this fossil fuel–era
of ours means tons of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Global
trade may entail high transportation costs, but it also organizes food
production to occur where it’s most efficient. Besides, isn’t
it wonderful to have fresh produce out of season? The reasonable middle
ground is to give some preference to locally grown food.
8. Don’t take more medications than you need to. In
most cases, our bodies use only a fraction of any drug we take. The rest
gets excreted, but it doesn’t disappear once we’ve flushed.
Scientists are still sorting out which drugs are causing significant
harm and at what levels. But there’s already evidence that pharmaceuticals
in waste water adversely effect aquatic ecosystems. All drugs have side
effects, so for your own health, you should take medications that are
necessary but no more. Now the environmental consequences may be another
reason to be prudent in your pill intake.
9. Get behind the greening of hospitals and medical buildings. American
hospitals are on a building spree that rivals the post–World War
II boom. They’re getting more deluxe, with additional private rooms
and more sophisticated technology. In some cases, hospitals are seizing
the opportunity to build “greener” buildings, which have
attributes that may also improve the health and well-being of patients.
Building a hospital or nursing home with more natural light not only
saves energy but may also enhance the mood of patients (and staff!) and
keep them more oriented. We can encourage their construction by writing
a letter (hospitals are very public relations conscious) and supporting
policies and programs that encourage energy-efficient construction.
June 2007 update
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