The Good News About the Bad News

Three Fridays ago I spent my day at the Green Science Policy Institute‘s Fire Retardant Symposium in Berkeley.  Throughout the day I listened as experts in fields a diverse as marine biology, legal morality and military outfitting discussed the potential impact of fire retardant chemicals on the environment and ourselves.

As I sat stunned at the laundry list of terrible health effects scientists are finding potentially connected to fire retardant chemicals largely found in furniture, (and mandated by California law in certain products) I began to smile.

No, I didn’t find feline hyperthyroidism entertaining, nor did I like the idea of sterile California Sea Otters.  Neither was I smiling about the levels of toxic chemicals being passed from mother to child through breast milk in Harbor Seals and humans.

Harp Seal Pup

I was being inundated with bad news.

So while the room of forty or so people debated the best way to safely dispose of materials treated with fire retardants ranging from plastic shipping pallets to strollers and couches so as not to further contaminate the water, air, wildlife and ourselves, I was glad for the conversation.  The group was solution-oriented.

One potential disposal answer sounded familiar– placing all treated materials in Yucca Mountain, site of debate over nuclear waste disposal for years.  That’s when it clicked.  This is good news.

The environmental and health challenges we face today are not isolated.  We’re not left to battle global warming or environmentally persistent toxic chemicals or threatened biodiversity or desertification separately– each of these issues is intertwined with others!

The awareness raised and solutions found for each issue may also bring awareness of other issues and provide solutions to other problems we face.  That’s great news!

For example, you go to the aquarium and find out that sea birds are dying by the truck-full from ingesting pieces of plastic.  Worry about the future of these birds?  You might also learn that these same birds are suffering from less productive hatching seasons due to thinning eggshells caused by heavy toxic chemical loads, or that there are two continent-sized masses of plastic bits stewing in the Pacific Ocean.  Three environmental issues have now been raised, all with a common theme:  what we put into the environment as trash is washed into the ocean and can dramatically impact wildlife.  Now we can work on all three of these issues by considering what we’re disposing of and how.

Plastic vortices in the Pacific Ocean.

I’ve worried the last few years about the trendiness of “green” and the prominence of global warming amongst environmental issues.  It concerned me that maybe people would tire of the hype or lose sight of other environmental problems, myopically focused on climate change.  Plus, as long as climate change is associated with Al Gore and his multi-million dollar slide show, the reach of the environmental gospel seems short.

However, my experience at the fire retardant symposium brought hope.  Hope that all the bad news would lead to good news.  Multiple problems, shared solutions, a lighter load to carry in the fight to preserve our planet.


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