Advice for the eco-minded.
What are the best choices for home cleaning products?
—Nila Petty, St. Louis, MO
Even though they make your home sparkle, many household cleaners contain harsh chemicals that can damage the atmosphere, our waterways, and your health. Plus, they’re often packaged in containers that can’t be recycled. How do you know which products to buy? Thankfully a number of groups analyze the impact of everything from surface solvents to soaps, making buying greener products easier for health- and eco-conscious consumers.
“We encourage people to look at the whole life cycle of the product, not just what’s in the bottle,” says Jim Darr, a chemist with the EPA’s office of pollution, prevention, and toxic substances. That means reading the ingredients list to check for corrosive or caustic chemicals, like concentrated ammonia or bleach. Also check to see whether the product is biodegradable or the bottle is a pump or aerosol spray (go for the pump—it usually has fewer harmful volatile organic compounds). The EPA’s Design for the Environment program rates cleaners based on performance and their impact on environmental and human health. Other organizations analyze products, too. The nonprofit Green Seal vets cleaners before stamping its green checkmark on the package.
And remember, just because a label says “natural” doesn’t mean it’s toxin-free. As an alternative to commercial cleaners, make your own from natural ingredients like vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and hot water. (Click here for recipes.)
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What’s the best way to dispose of dog feces or litter box waste?
—Mary Kircher, Santa Fe, NM
Getting rid of your pet’s poop is no laughing matter. Many kitty litters are composed of clay-based silica, which is strip-mined, an environmentally destructive process. Instead, the Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy organization, suggests using a sifting litter box or filling your existing box with wheat, corn, ground corncobs, alfalfa, or sawdust pellets (all available at pet stores).
Some cat feces carry a parasite called Toxoplasma that can cause severe infections in wildlife and people. Dog scat with hookworms or roundworms is also potentially harmful to humans. So refrain from burying dung to prevent contaminating groundwater, and don’t flush it down the toilet—wastewater treatment plants don’t kill the parasites. Putting the poop in a dark plastic bag and sending it to the landfill is the best option, says Patricia Conrad, a University of California, Davis, parasitologist who studied Toxoplasma in sea otters. The dark color absorbs heat, speeding up decomposition and killing pathogens.
“We’re cat fans, but we’re also wildlife fans and human health fans,” says Conrad.“Wild, feral, and owned cats make a very large contribution to the amount of feces that we’re putting in the environment.” Dogs do, too. So instead of letting poop sit in your yard or litter box, set it on the curb with the rest of your garbage.
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Does climate change affect hibernating animals?
—Dan Williams, Fargo, ND
Spring’s earlier onset is beginning to cause behavioral changes in some hibernating animals. Marmots and potentially woodchucks are waking up earlier from their winter snoozes, a change that can have fatal consequences.
“If you come out of hibernation and the plants aren’t up, but you’re up, you’re going to starve to death,” says Greg Florant, a biologist at Colorado State University who studies woodchucks’ hibernation patterns. David Inouye, a University of Maryland biologist, found that marmots are emerging from their burrows about a month earlier than they used to. At least one of these early risers met its death by coyote, which Inouye attributes to the premature wakeup call: The rodent was caught in the open, and its escape burrows were still blocked by snow.
A number of other animals may be experiencing sleep disruptions, too, including bears, chipmunks, and ground squirrels. Some scientists also speculate that white-nose syndrome, which has led to the death of a million bats, may be exacerbated by warmer climes because the mammals wake up before food is available, thus burning through fat stores and starving. Although the evidence is preliminary, what scientists are finding provides yet another reason why fighting climate change may help us all sleep better.
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