Advice for the eco-minded.
I’ve heard bamboo flooring is more eco-friendly than traditional pine or oak. Is this true?
—Cara Truhlar, Montpelier, VT
At first glance, bamboo is as green as it gets. It grows like a weed (technically, it’s a grass) and can reach harvestable height in three to five years. This crop—also native to the Americas—sequesters carbon more efficiently than slow-growing oak forests, which can take 10 times as long to reach maturity. Bamboo is grown most extensively in China for commercial products, but—here’s the hitch—it can become invasive if not properly managed. Widely acclaimed for its prolific growth, bamboo doesn’t usually require fertilizers and pesticides for optimal yields. However, once it’s cut, most bamboo is treated with chemical preservatives, as is the case with some other mainstream flooring materials, says Brad Salmon, president of the American Bamboo Society. These issues should factor into a product’s measure of sustainability. The Forest Stewardship Council, the main green-wood accreditor, has just started evaluating U.S. bamboo producers, and so far it has okayed only one company, Smith & Fong Co. If you’re shopping for bamboo flooring, it’s best to start with taking a hard look at its source. Bamboo grows in some of the most threatened ecosystems in Southeast Asia and Central America. Look for planks made from farmed, not wild, bamboo. Also “keep its whole life cycle in mind,” says Stowe Hartridge-Beam, program manager for indoor-air quality at Scientific Certification Systems, an industry-recognized third-party certifier. “How is the product manufactured and transported? Is it recyclable when it reaches the end of its life?” He says these questions must be asked of a bamboo floor salesperson or the manufacturer; they should be able to provide answers. Remember, bamboo, like any wood, needs additional sealants if you want to use it in a place that gets wet, like a bathroom or kitchen. Ask for varnishes and glues that have low volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and that also adhere to California Section 01350, the highest air-quality standard for these products. Always buy the most sustainable products you can afford. You’re worth it.
Back to Top
Should I be concerned about idling school buses and air quality?
—Beth Stevenson, Purceville, VA
Let’s clear the air about the fumes that have parents fuming from coast to coast. Yes, diesel exhaust is pretty bad stuff. By all means avoid it if you can. “There’s an elevated cancer risk from exposure to diesel exhaust on buses, and it’s especially bad for asthma and respiratory health; soot particles in diesel are tiny and work their way deep into the lungs,” says Diane Bailey, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Kids are particularly vulnerable because they breathe more air—polluted or otherwise—per pound of body weight, putting their immune systems, lungs, and organs at a higher risk of ailments caused by airborne toxins. Fortunately, rules in 12 states, 25 counties, and 20 cities across the country limit bus idling (in California buses are allowed to sit with the engine running for only five minutes), but these regulations apply to just part of the problem. In addition to breathing in bus fumes while standing curbside, kids are also exposed to diesel exhaust inside the bus. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies diesel exhaust as a likely human carcinogen and a possible endocrine disruptor. Cherise Udell, founder and president of Utah Moms for Clean Air, points out that many kids bump along in the big yellow bus for longer than 30 minutes, twice a day, nine months out of the year. “Every year 24 million kids ride the bus,” she says. “We don’t want to deter parents from [relying on] the safest way to get their kids to school, but we do need to assess the fleets and upgrade the exhaust systems, or put pollution-control equipment on [them].” The EPA, along with state and local governments, is footing part of the bill to retrofit buses with pollution filters and replace old diesel buses (school districts must apply for the funding). Diesel fumes can be intense in the back of the bus, and are found in the highest concentrations when windows are closed. Ask your kids to sit up front, with the windows open (if the weather’s nice and the ride is short). You will breathe easier.
Back to Top
What does it mean when a building is “LEED-certified”?
—Carol Scholl, Bismarck, ND
Buildings—malls, homes, office spaces, schools—are responsible for the glut of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. They account for about half of the nation’s global warming gases, roughly double that from transportation (27 percent) and industry (25 percent). The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has been working on lowering building emissions for close to 10 years, and its third-party certification system, called LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) gives a green thumbs up to all kinds of structures: healthcare facilities, office buildings, condos, commercial spaces, homes, and even rentals. LEED tallies points for various levels of certification, from simply “certified,” to silver, gold, and the highest rating of platinum. (National Audubon’s new headquarters is aiming for platinum.) “LEED is designed as a flexible, points-based system, and buildings can go different routes to get a rating,” says Russell Unger, executive director of the New York chapter of the USGBC. “Typically, LEED-certified structures use a high portion of recycled materials, off-gas low levels of VOCs, source materials locally, and use significantly less energy and water than a non-LEED building.” The standards are periodically updated, he adds, and the organization has recently added a pilot program for retail locations and a new certification for retrofits. If they haven’t already, LEED-certified buildings will soon be coming to an area near you.
Send your most vexing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Back to Top