Friday, June 30, 2006

What's HE smoking?

So there's this guy in Germany, Alexander Schoppmann, who is trying to get a new "smoker's airline" going. I heard him being interviewed on CBC's "As it Happens" this week. Schoppmann seems to envision the airline as a "luxury experience". He wants to use those planes that have two levels, bringing back the inflight upstairs lounge - something that I vaguely recall from when I was little. (All I ever saw of it was the mysterious spiral staircase heading upwards at the front of the plane. )

Schoppmann was claiming that the air in his planes will be cleaner than in regular commercial planes and that the WHO (World Health Organization) has said there's "no evidence for second-hand smoke".

I'm willing to buy that the air in most of the planes I fly in isn't great, but even with a state-of-the art air conditioner, I can't see how a the atmosphere in a plane full of smokers could be better. It's a whole additional set of chemicals (like small particles and carcinogens) introduced into the cabin in addition to the ones that are already there on any flight (like bacteria, perfumes, and God-knows-what-else).

As for his comments on second-hand smoke, I think he forgot his parachute. The Surgeon General just released a report about involuntary smoke that concluded (among other things) that "Secondhand smoke exposure causes disease and premature death in children and adults who do not smoke".

And let me clue you into something I found on the WHO website under the heading "Second hand tobacco smoke":

Article 8 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, adopted by all WHO Member States in May 2003, reads: “Protection from exposure to tobacco smoke
1. Parties recognise that scientific evidence has unequivocally established that exposure to tobacco smoke causes death, disease and disability.

Or how about this, also from the WHO site: "Second-hand smoke is a real and significant threat to public health. Supported by two decades of evidence, the scientific community now agrees that there is no safe level of exposure to second-hand smoke."

I don't know what Alexander Schoppmann's been smoking lately but it's got include something other than straight-up tobacco.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Fun with Words IV

I've been reading a bit of fluff called "The Bride of Anguished English" by Richard Lederer - it's basically a catalogue of mistakes and garbled English that have appeared in newspapers, church bulletins, transcripts of legal proceedings, students' essays, and so on. There is a section on "word botchers" - people who misspeak words without realizing it - like people who want a little piece of quiet for example. Here are some others from his book:

  • "The chapter committees meet at the desacration of the committee chairman"
  • "We have to deal seriously with this offense as a detergent to others"
  • "His ex-wife recieved a decease and desist order"
  • "He's a self-defacating person - that's why I admire him so much"
  • "please, someone stop that incestuous pounding!"
  • "They raised a great human cry"
  • "A fool and his money are some party"

As Richard Lederer says in his book: "These [...] malapropsims are not prefabrications. They are not pigments of the imagination."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Flat earth - it's not funny!

Yesterday at the Shared Air Summit, Senator John Kerry compared climate change skeptics to flat-earthers. As in, even though to us on the ground, the curve is so slight that we can't see it, overwhelming evidence exists to suggest that the earth isn't flat.

Also that there are still people who will argue with you about the shape of the earth.

At least they are funnier (in their disclaimer, anyway) than the current administrations in Canada and the States. Politicians don't usually come with disclaimers (although that would be really handy for my next trip to the voting booth) - I suppose because they never admit to being wrong.

When politicians are funny it's usually unintentional:Sorry dude. I realize it's a gratuitous poke at you - but c'mon. Your nonexistant Environmental plan is so unfunny.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Shared Air 2006

Today I was at the Shared Air Summit, which was put on by the Ontario provincial government for the second year in a row in an attempt to foster some discussion and cooperation between various "stakeholders" ( which is the usual buzzword to refer to people who know stuff or have some interest in whatever you're talking about) for improved air quality.

I'm quite clear, however, that one big part of the event was about communication to the public - there was lots of media there and three of the speakers would be draws for most Canadians: John Kerry, the Democratic Senator and former presidential candidate, Sara Renner, that x-country skiier who broke her pole in a race at the Turin Olympics and still got a silver medal, and Roberta Bondar, Canada's first woman in space. (And apparently the world's first neurologist in space, something that was repeated several times today but which I had never really heard before as a "Roberta Bondar claim-to-fame").

Although I do really hope that the summit does actually foster some cooperation among those people who hold the power (whether or not it's renewable presumably depends on their political popularity - ha!) - part of me is OK with the media circus that was created even though it was designed mostly to hype the Ontario Liberals. They have done some good stuff and that should be acknowledged - but also - if we want more progress, it's critical that people care about clean air, understand the climate change issues, realize the impact of their energy use, and be willing to make all of it into issues that could elect or defeat a government.

Fun with quotes

Oooo, I've been so delinquent. I have lots of things to say - I just haven't been near the computer much lately. Actually it has probably been a healthy break.

To get back into the blogging mode I thought I'd start off with a few quotations selected completely at random (OK, well, as random as opening a book to some page that's probably more likely to be near the beginning than towards the end can be, which if you're a statistician is probably not random at all, but ANYWAY) from

Quotations on the

Compiled, Annotated and Introduced by Oline Luinenberg & Stephen Osborne

Here goes:
  1. ON THE SALUBRIOUS EFFECTS OF CERTAIN VEGETABLE LIFE-FORMS... Flowers in the city are like lipstick on a woman - it just makes you look better to have a little colour -Lady Bird Johnson, 1988
  2. A ROSE IS A ROSE, ETC.... A tree is a tree. Now how many more do you need to look at? -Ronald Reagan, 1965
  3. ON THE DESTRUCTION OF THE WORLD'S FORESTS... It's as though the nations of the world decided to burn their libraries without bothering to see what is in them. -Daniel Janzen, biologist, Univ. of Penn., 1989
  4. A TAUTOLOGICAL APPROACH TO NUCLEAR SAFETY... The record of the nuclear industry in this country has been excellent because in civil installations there have been no fatalaties in this country -Margaret Thatcher, 1990

There are more. Many more - but I'll save them for another day.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The heat is on

A new report requested by Congress from the U.S. National Academies of Science has confirmed that the last few decades have been the warmest of the past 400 years, and that the warming is almost certainly due to human activity.

George Bush probably has his fingers in his ears and is singing "lalalalalalala" as loud as he can - especially since his administration's climate change science program also released a report last month saying that "the observed patterns of change over the past 50 years cannot be explained by natural processes alone".

Hopefully these two reports will put some pressure on Washington to do something about the emissions that cause climate change. Or at least change up the political climate some.

'Cuz you KNOW that is Al Gore runs again and IF he gest in he pretty much HAS to do something about the US's greenhouse gas emissions. After he made that lovely documentary an' all.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Don't pout, darling, it's the truth

Rona Ambrose, looking more like she's pouting for a photographer than considering greenhouse gases.


Apparently I'm not the only one questioning Rona Ambrose's ability to perform her job. The NDP tabled a motion before the commons demanding that she resign.

The motion won't pass; the Liberals have said they'll abstain from the vote. They apparently agree that she's incompetent but the Conservatives threatened to turn a passing vote into a Fall election - and the Liberals probably don't want to spur an election just yet in case Canadians still think that (not withstanding Ms. Ambrose's astounding lack of qualification for her job) the Torys are more competent than the Liberals on balance.

All I know is that SOMEBODY should PLEASE get Canada some kind of environmental plan. Surely someone up in Ottawa can manage that? Especially since a new report from NRTEE (National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy) says that Canada could reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 using existing technology and without hurting the economy.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Intelligent bacteria

Cool! A Japanese reseach group has engineered a super-bacteria that can "eat up" (aka degrade) dioxin two or three times faster than wild-type strains. This is good news: in case you weren't sure, dioxin is thought to be one of the most toxic groups of chemicals us humans have allowed to seep into the environment. Not only that, they bioaccumulate in humans and animals - which basically means that their concentrations increase in our bodies over time as we consume other organisms that also contain dioxin due to its pretty much ubiquitous exposure.

Funny that today I also saw an article from ENN talking about whether or not we should be studying biological system to inspire technological development. Obviously it worked for the Japanese group - but then again, they weren't studying worm brains or fish jaws, as some of the researchers who went to a conference in Atlanta were. Who knows whether those projects will be helpful in the long run!

Proponents of intelligent design think scientists are nuts if they think these complex systems developed by hit-and-miss but are worth reverse engineering.

I say, if it works, and gets us faster degradation of dioxin (or any other useful application, really) - who cares how the original system came to be.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Camping in the smog

Yes, I have returned from my camping weekend, a pint or so lighter in blood... just kidding; the mosquitos actually weren't too bad - I think it was way to hot for them. I didn't see a single black fly though - I can't understand it; I thought this would be prime blackfly season. Maybe they just can't fly through all that dirty air.

I returned to my desk this morning to read that the smog advisory I spent my weekend under was terminated today. Yes, people, there was a smog advisory covering most of southern Ontario this weekend, from Windsor to Waterloo, to Toronto to Peterborough, up to Algonguin, even further up to yes, Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and North Bay and all parts in between (sigh) . Pretty sad to think that such a massive geographical area can be subject to bad air.

A recent study found that many suburban Toronto residents thought that the air was cleaner in their neighborhoods than it is downtown. Sorry, folks, try again. Air moves pretty easily from one location to another, dontcha know? And I'm pretty sure that the suburbs are where a lot of the cars live.

Maybe we need to figure out how to communicate better about air quality issues. If everyone realized that they were breathing dirty air too - would they feel more compelled to solve our air quality problems?

Friday, June 16, 2006

Gone camping

Yup, I'm headed north this weekend to commune with nature. I'll let y'all know how the bugs are doing when I get back...

Another China story

China is booming. The economy is growing, people are making money, and now they all have cars. During the rapid growth that happened, I guess a bunch of bicycle lanes got destroyed in a lot of cities as roads were widened and buildings erected.

Well, now the Chinese government wants them put back! The ministry of construction is ordering cities to replace any bicycle lanes that were eliminated.

The huge jump in car ownership in China is responsible for some terrible air pollution, not to mention way more traffic jams and accidents than the Chinese used to deal with.

Will putting bike lanes back in encourage this newly car-centric society to switch back to two wheels, I wonder?

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Keep Cool

I just wanted to praise the Clean Air Foundation for all the great programs it runs, including "Energy smarts", "Mow down pollution", "Switch out", "Keep cool", "Car heaven", and "Cool shops".

If you want to find out what they all are - you'll just have to visit their website - but here's a teaser: the Keep Cool Campaign promotes clean air, reduced energy use, and responsible recycling of old air conditioners. Here's the deal: bring your old, inefficient window A/C unit to a participating Home Depot (26 available locations) or Home Hardware (5 locations) some weekend this month, and you'll get a $25 gift card to spend at the store. Yup, $25, just like that, and you get rid of your old clunker! Or clunkers, if you have more than one.

Those old air conditioners use 30-70% more energy than an ENERGY STAR qualified models.


Apparently our energy use in the summer (due mainly to air conditioning) is actually overtaking the amount of energy we use in the winter to keep warm. That means more air pollution on days when lots of sun and warm temperatures already promots smog formation.

As for me, well, I won't be picking up a gift card anytime soon - we don't actually have an air conditioner! Of course, if this summer is as hot as some predictions I've heard, I might not have my sanity either by the end of it.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Energy awareness

Apparently Chinese government workers were ordered to go without cars, elevators and air conditioning today as part of an awareness campaign about saving energy.

The report, in the official China daily newspaper, (well, apparently - I can't seem to find the original article) said that China's 7 million public servants consume about 5 percent of the country's total electricity a year, equal to the electricity consumed annually by 780 million farmers.

China is undergoing incredible economic growth - I keep hearing how Asia is developing serious air quality problems as a result of the dramatic increases in car ownership and use and because of unregulated emissions from all sorts of industries. The massive growth combined with a huge (and in some areas, very dense) population is creating serious environmental issues including acute pollution crises, as well as energy shortages.

I wonder what would happen in Canada if our government decided that all of our civil servants should all do without cars, elevators, and air conditioning for a day? ... of course, a real-life energy shortage kind of made that choice for a whole bunch of us two years ago: that would be the famous blackout.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Global Warning

Over the weekend Pat and I went to see Al Gore's new documentary called "An Inconvenient Truth", which is all about global warming. My new pal Al cites a study that reviewed a random sample of ~1000 peer-reviewed articles on climate change and found that not one of them questioned whether or not it is happening. (He also shows that in the media, 53% of articles question climate change) .

The doc does a great job of showing the parallels between CO2 emissions and warming, and of explaining the potential consequences of gobal warming. Like, if Greenland starts to melt too fast, the whole gulf stream current could stop existing. That would be hugely bad news for all of us. And if all of Greenland melts, hundreds of millions of people in places like China and Bangladesh will find their homes underwater. (Oh, some of us will too here in North America but the numbers aren't quite as staggering).

Even though the film ends on a relatively hopeful note - I think the intent is to inspire - I left the theatre feeling pretty sad. I think it had to do with my revelation earlier this week that the Canadian government just does not care. And that probably, it hasn't for a while, regardless of the specific administration. What happened to us, Canada? We used to think we were environmental leaders!

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Yesterday Pat and I happened upon "WOOFstock" - a festival held in downtown Toronto for dogs. There were big dogs, small dogs, dogs with dresses on, and a dog dressed up as a hot dog. There were booths selling pet food, leashes, luxury doggie beds, frozen dog snacks, dog costumes, and dog toys.

It was highly disturbing.

Now, I know cute (I have previously mentioned my addiction to, and I understand the comfort and companionship that many people derive from their pets, not to mention a bit of protection and encouragement to get a little exercise... but the pet industry is outrageous.

A UNDP (United Nations Development PProgram) report indicates that the global pet food market was worth $27.5 billion in 1998 and is projected to grow to $40b by 2010. They also state that this is enough money to fund basic social protection for all low income countries. A separate UNDP report suggests that the world's most heavily indebted poor coutries would need to spend $20 billion between them to meet the millenium goals - which include things like eradicating extreme hunger and mortality and reducing child mortality.

It all makes the money we as a society spend on our pets (and on other luxuries, such as cosmetics - the UNDP has made a variey of interesting comparisons in the past) just seems so frivolous.

No dog needs (or wants) to wear a costume.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Small rant in honor of environment week

... and while I'm on the topic of the smog summit, I'd just like to point out that this year was the first year in seven years that there was no federal minister of the environment at the summit.

Pretty lame, IMO.

The general consensus among the people I chit-chatted with is that the federal government has no environmental plan right now. Apparently Rona Ambrose (the non-appearing minister in question) doesn't have much of a background in environmental issues. According to her website, she holds bachelor's and a mater's degrees in Arts and has previously worked on intergovernmental affairs. Yeah, I would say that might not really be the appropriate kind of preparation.

I also heard that funding has been pulled out from under the feet of NRCan (Natural Resources Canada), and while I guess we're still paying the employees there to show up at work, they don't really have anything to do when they get there. Not only that but other consultants, such as those running the repair our air fleet challenge, have also had their funding pulled.

I won't elaborate on what I think about all this because I might be forced to use some bad words.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Take a pill!

Yesterday at the smog summit I met a guy who claimed to be a former bigwig in the Canadian pharmaceutical industry (now he's into packaging (which seems an odd switch for a former pharma-guy); I gather he was at the smog summit because he's helping Loblaws to reduce their corrugated cardboard use by 50%) .

Her figures the next big thing in the air quality/health field will be drugs that treat the health impacts of exposure to air pollution. As in, something that would clean your blood of all those nasty toxins, or somehow prevent those respiratory effects if taken as a preventive agent.

He was trying to tell me that this should be where I focus my energies. You know, so that I can be successful and rich.

Even if I thought that he was right about this being a money-maker (and honestly? I can picture pharmaceutical companies trying it) I can't see myself ever being comfortable with such an approach. Aside from the fact that air pollution causes ecological and visibility problems in addition to health effects, I think that prevention is the only ethical approach to our air quality problems.

God. Let's not treat the symptom (ha! and any attendant side effects!). Let's prevent the disease in the first place.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Clean Air Day

Today I was at the smog summit in Toronto, which is held for the various constituent municipalities and regions to talk about different initiatives they've taken on and challenges they face when it comes to clean air. It's organized by the Clean Air Partnership.

It's great to hear that all municipalities are doing something - most of them have anti-idling bylaws, are involved in education campaigns in the schools, and are retrofitting municipal buildings to be more energy efficient. Some are replacing traditional streetlights with LEDs, which are much cheaper and more efficient, and others are investing in biodiesel and hybrid vehicles for the municipal fleets. Here are some of the highlights in my opinion:

  • Burlington is offering free transit today and on several other days this summer to encourage residents to try it out
  • Caledon is the first municipality to purchase all its power from Bullfrog power
  • Newmarket has an environmentally progressive subdivision being built and another developer interested in following suit
  • Vaughn works with local manufacturers to figure out how they can be more efficient and save money. In one case, a business was able to save about $80 000 in less than a year by becoming more efficient and less pollution. Now that makes sense!
Still, there's lots of work. Nobody mentioned the amount of money being put into highway and road construction and how new roads always seem to attract new cars. Ajax and at least one other municipality (AUGH! I can't recall which one!) were concerned that the Federal government appears unwilling to be a full partner in air quality and climate change initiatives. (And I was concerned that the federal minister of the environment was not at the summit.) As well, although the municipalities are trying to lead the way into sustainability, it is still not clear to me how they will convince the public and the corporate world to follow them.

Monday, June 05, 2006

a largely satisfactory cartoon

Today I came across an "archive of largely satisfactory cartoon freeware".

I enjoyed several of the cartoons so thought I'd share an environmental risk-assessment-type one (since I'm sort of an environmental risk assessment type myself):

Friday, June 02, 2006

Bush gets interested in climate change?

Apparently climate change might be a big threat to Florida. Two researchers say that warming is causing a long-term increase in the number of bad storms experienced by the state. They say that warming of the ocean by 1 degree Farenheit since 1970 has doubled the number of Category 4 or 5 hurricanes.

There's lots of debate (as usual with the climate change issue) about whether they're right - some say that the region is experiencing a natural upswing in the number of bad storms, and that climate change isn't a factor.

A reason this might be news is that the state Governor met to talk with the researchers, and Bush has even commented on their results (apparently he thinks they are "compelling". I'm sure he's experienced in critical thinking about approaches to hurricane modelling and can tell whether their research is any good).

Maybe Bush will pay attention. After all, he owes Florida and its hanging chads bigtime.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Risk tradeoffs

Environmental Defence released a roport today describing a study blood samples were collected from several families across Canada and then tested for various toxins. The most important finding appears to be that many of the children have higher blood levels of some toxins than their parents do.

This is worrisome - after all, these kids have years of exposure left ahead of them. The main chemicals of concern are those used in flame retardants and stain-resistant clothing - chemicals which are extensively used today.

The story seems to have been extensively picked up by the media - and of course Canadians should be kept informed about potential risks like this.


The way the media handles stories like this sometimes bugs me - it often feels alarmist. Here are some things that bothered me this time around:

1. in no secondary report could I actually find what the measured levels were! (I have now downloaded the original report which does contain this information - and have realized that I don't have the expertise to interpret the levels of risk associated with these exposures anyway. )

2. the report also concludes that for substances which have been regulated, childrens' blood levels were lower than their parents'. This was not the highlight of the news stories - but is equally important information IMO.

3. sometimes the cost-benefit implications of getting rid of a chemical should be considered - what is the risk of chronic exposure to flame retardants versus the number of kids who are likely to be more severely burned in their absence? Is there an alternative that we know is safe? I don't know the answer to those questions and I'd like to.

Thanks to Caroline who pointed out the report to me this morning