Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Scientists take aim at cigarettes


They have two parts: a plastic filter and the remnants of a smoked cigarette.

They’re considered the No. 1 littered item in the world, and more than 1 million are collected annually in beach cleanups nationwide.

They’re targeted by groups trying to raise cigarette taxes for more litter-control projects.

They’re toxic to fish.

Source: cigwaste.org

Cigarettes don’t just kill people, they also kill fish.

So said San Diego State University researchers who are trying to build a case for labeling cigarette butts as toxic hazardous waste. That tag would prompt more rules to reduce their presence in the environment, though the bigger effect may be in public perception.

The San Diego scientists will present their conclusions today at the 137th annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in Philadelphia. They have submitted their results for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

“It’s another way of looking at cigarettes as a societal hazard,” said Tom Novotny, a professor of public health at SDSU. “If we reframe the butts as toxic hazardous waste, that adds another opportunity to change the social acceptability of smoking.”

Robert Best, regional director of the smokers’ rights group Citizens Freedom Alliance in Ventura County, is skeptical.

“This is just another attack on smokers and an attack on the entire tobacco industry, including farmers and distributors, in the midst of an economic crisis,” Best said. “We already have littering laws in the state of California that say you cannot throw any trash out on the ground or in the waterways.”

In recent years, community and health activists have won bans on smoking at beaches from California to New Jersey. Lawmakers acted partly out of concern about secondhand smoke and partly to reduce the amount of cigarette butts discarded at parks and other places. In July, San Francisco added a 20-cent fee to each pack of cigarettes to cover the cost of collecting spent smokes.

Novotny and his collaborators in the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project want more controls on what they call the most littered object on Earth. Trillions of cigarettes are smoked worldwide each year, and more than 1 million butts are collected annually during coastal cleanups in the United States, according to the project.

Novotny wondered about the butts’ effects on waterways. He turned to Rick Gersberg, a professor of public health at SDSU who specializes in water pollution.

Gersberg, a former smoker, was intrigued enough to review the scientific literature and determine that there were no published studies addressing cigarette butts and fish.

It’s different “if I pour a little vial of carcinogenic chemicals on the street — just a tiny amount,” Gersberg said. “(But if) hundreds of thousands of people were doing so many times a day, wouldn’t someone worry about it? Probably so.”

Gersberg helped design an experiment in which he let smoked filters soak in containers of water for 24 hours. Then he put fish in the polluted water and monitored them for five days, part of what he called a standard hazard assessment.

Half the fish died in both salt and fresh water, Gersberg said.

The bigger question is whether cigarettes have a similar effect in the real world — something that hasn’t been evaluated.

“We’d like to look at the chemicals that are actually causing the toxicity and if they are accumulating in marine life,” Gersberg said.

The $110,000 study on cigarette butts included policy analysis and biological research. It was funded by the California Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, a University of California effort to reduce the health and economic costs of tobacco use.

At UC San Francisco’s tobacco-control center, Richard Barnes has offered ideas for reducing cigarette butt litter such as levying new taxes on tobacco products to pay for litter collection, strengthening penalties for cigarette litter and suing tobacco companies to recover cleanup costs.

The nonprofit Surfrider Foundation is trying a different approach. On Saturday, the group’s San Diego County chapter will hold its sixth annual “Hold Onto Your Butt” awareness program. The event will include demonstrations and giveaways at three beach communities in the region.

The SDSU research gives Surfrider more ammunition. “We have thought for a while that toxic chemicals leach from discarded butts when submerged in water, so it’s good in some ways to see confirmation,” said Bill Hickman from the group’s local chapter.

By Mike Lee

Friday, November 6, 2009

Tijuana Biofilter

This summer Urban Biofilter joined the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve and Earth Island Institute’s Restoration Initiative on a bi-national project to restore the Tijuana River Estuary Watershed.

Urban Biofilter hosted a 30-person workshop in the Tijuana neighborhood of San Bernardo to help restore the flow of water to the local river system. As is the case with many of the informal settlements in the area, San Bernardo does not have a centralized sewage treatment system. This means that wastewater from San Bernardo simply drains through the streets to the Tijuana River Estuary, one of the last 24 estuaries remaining in the country. Each side street becomes a tributary to the main street, Calle Amanecer, which eventually flows to the estuary, dramatically impacting the water quality and aquatic ecosystem. These open channels also pose a serious health concern, as a vector for contamination, putting the local people at a greater risk of contracting hepatitis and staph infections, mosquito-borne diseases, and diarrhea.

In the course of the workshop, participants lined the channel with gravel to reduce human exposure to the water, and replanted the surrounding area with locally collected native willows to provide a natural air filter. The group also planted a small pilot crop of local bamboo.

Unlike other restoration groups working in the area, Urban Biofilter brings a holistic approach to restoration and water management. Working with communities who do not have access to municipal wastewater treatment systems to build decentralized waste treatment wetlands and ecological sanitation systems, which have the ability to yield building materials, which are in high demand. Now, Urban Biofilter is hoping to expand this pilot project to address the wastewater infrastructure of the 1.2 million Tijuana residents who live in informal communities.

For more info....urbanbiofilter.org

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

UCSD-TV "Los Laureles Canyon: Research in Action"

There may be a border dividing us, but when it comes to the environmental challenges facing Los Laureles, a canyon that crosses the U.S.-Mexico border and spills into the sensitive wetlands of California's Tijuana Estuary, we all must deal with the consequences. That's why researchers from both countries have come together to try to affect change in a place that 65,000 people call home.

UCSD-TV Producer Shannon Bradley, in collaboration with Keith Pezzoli of UCSD's Urban Studies and Planning program, visited the region and met with researchers on both sides of the border who are seeking ways to repair the area's failing infrastructure and stop its waste from flowing down into the estuary, threatening the wildlife that depend on its pristine wetlands for survival. This inspiring story is told in a new UCSD-TV documentary premiering this month. Find out more at www.ucsd.tv/loslaureles

UCSD-TV is available on Time Warner and Cox cable Ch. 135, Time Warner Del Mar Ch. 19, AT&T U-Verse Ch. 99, and UHF (no cable) Ch. 35.