On this blog, we post recent sustainability news to help people learn about initiatives and events related to sustainability in Central Wisconsin.

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For Walkers and Cyclists, A Swedish Road-Planning Strategy Helps Save Lives

From YES! Magazine, September 2, 2014

SwedishBikeUtah, Minnesota, and Washington have seen traffic fatalities decline by 40 percent. Here’s how they did it.

More than 4,500 pedestrians are killed and more than 68,000 are injured by motor vehicles every year on the streets of America. The victims are disproportionately children, seniors, and people of color. A recent report from the National Complete Streets Coalition found that from 2003 to 2012, more than 47,000 people were killed crossing the street. That’s 16 times the number of people who died in natural disasters over the same period. [....]

From Philadelphia to Chicago to Oregon, campaigns to reduce pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths to zero are now taking shape around the country.

The campaigns are based on a new safety strategy called Vision Zero, which is modeled on successful efforts in Sweden. Pedestrian deaths in Sweden have dropped 50 percent since 2009, and overall traffic deaths have been cut in half since 2000—making Swedish streets the safest in the world, according to the New York Times.

The Economist reports that Sweden accomplished this by emphasizing safety over speed in road design, and attributes the impressive drop in traffic deaths to improved crosswalks, narrowed streets, lowered urban speed limits, and barriers that separate cars from bikes and pedestrians.

Sweden took a far different approach than conventional transportation planning, where “road users are held responsible for their own safety” according to the Vision Zero Initiative website. Swedish policy believes that to save lives, roads must anticipate driver, bicyclist, and walker errors, “based on the simple fact that we are human and we make mistakes.”

Read the full article.

Why Energy Efficiency Is the Most Important Fuel We Didn’t Know We Had

From Climate Progress, September 9, 2014

Energy efficiency has graduated from the “hidden fuel” to the “first fuel.” That’s the word from a new analysis the International Energy Agency published Tuesday, looking into the benefits of investments in energy efficiency upgrades. Those gains can be hard to measure, as they lie in energy not used and costs not encountered — hence the “hidden fuel” moniker. This tends to result in energy efficiency being chronically undervalued, a problem the study sought to remedy by taking a “multiple benefits” approach that accounted for the full sweep of effects across health, economics, energy, pollution, etc. Read the full article.


The Lead Hazard in Schools That Won’t Go Away

From Huffington Post, September 8, 2014

The worn, heart-shaped rug that greeted you upon entering Angela Molloy Murphy’s preschool was a reflection of the love she has for the 17 children she cares for daily in her home’s remodeled basement. To Tamara Rubin, however, the welcome mat was more of a warning sign. “You need to throw this out,” Rubin told Murphy.

Rubin is executive director of the nonprofit Lead Safe America Foundation. On a visit to the preschool earlier this May, she pointed an X-ray fluorescence heavy-metal detector at the rug’s faded red threads and relayed the bad news: It was loaded with lead.

Within the course of an hour, Murphy learned just how pervasive the toxic heavy metal was in her home and school: It was in the chips of lead paint on her deck steps, in dust rubbed free from door and window frames, in the glazes on her students’ thrift-store mugs. The rug itself, Rubin suggested, was likely a reservoir for lead chips and dust tracked around on students’ shoes.

Read the full article.

High Levels of Fungicide Found in Pregnant Women Living Near Banana Planations

From Tico Times, September 10, 2014

BananasA new study has found alarmingly high levels of pesticides in the urine of pregnant Costa Rican women working in and living near the banana industry in Matina, Limón. The chemical ethylene thiourea (ETU) found in the fungicide mancozeb, which is sprayed over banana plantations here, can be detrimental to fetal brain development, according to the report released Monday in Environmental Health Perspectives. Read the full article.

CLUE Note: Mancozeb, the same fungicide that is used on bananas in Costa Rica, is used on potatoes and apples in Wisconsin. According to the most recent data available, 150,000 pounds of mancozeb were applied to 41,250 acres of potatoes in Wisconsin (2010), and 13,000 pounds of mancozeb were applied to 2,552 acres of apples in Wisconsin (2005). Sources: USDA Major Chemical Use and Wisconsin Pesticide Use reports.

Cities Prepare for Warm Climate without Saying So

From Associated Press, September 8, 2014

With climate change still a political minefield across the nation despite the strong scientific consensus that it’s happening, some community leaders have hit upon a way of preparing for the potentially severe local consequences without triggering explosions of partisan warfare: Just change the subject.

Big cities and small towns are shoring up dams and dikes, using roof gardens to absorb rainwater or upgrading sewage treatment plans to prevent overflows. Others are planting urban forests, providing more shady relief from extreme heat. Extension agents are helping farmers deal with an onslaught of newly arrived crop pests.

But in many places, especially strongholds of conservative politics, they’re planning for the volatile weather linked to rising temperatures by speaking of “sustainability” or “resilience,” while avoiding no-win arguments with skeptics over whether the planet is warming or that human activity is responsible.

Read the full article.

Yale Fund Takes Aim at Climate Change

From The New York Times, September 7, 2014

As pressure grows from students who want to see their schools use financial clout to address environmental issues, Yale University’s investment office wrote to its money managers asking them to assess how investments could affect climate change and suggesting they avoid companies that do not take sensible “steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Read the full article.

Bees at the Brink: Planting a Green Desert

From Star Tribune, September 2014

Mac Ehrhardt often feels like he has one leg on either side of a barbed-wire fence. On one side stand the farmers who have bought seed from his family’s business for three generations, and who rely religiously on insecticides to protect their crops. On the other is Ehrhardt’s growing conviction that southern Minnesota’s two-tone landscape of corn and soybeans has become a barren and toxic place for a crucial player in the nation’s food system — the honeybee.

Ehrhardt’s uncomfortable position at the Albert Lea Seed Company reflects the powerful role that farmers could play in the plight of the bees. Though they represent just 2 percent of Minnesota’s population, farmers control half its land. And their embrace of the monocultures and pesticides that form the basis of modern industrial agriculture has been implicated in the decline of bees and pollinators.

Read the full article.

Judge Rules Against DNR on High-Capacity Well Issue

From Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 5, 2014

cowsIn a major victory for environmentalists, a state administrative law judge has ruled the Department of Natural Resources failed to consider the accumulated effects of groundwater use when the agency reviewed an application for a high-capacity well for a $35 million dairy farm.

Administrative Law Judge Jeffrey D. Boldt ruled on Wednesday that the DNR “took an unreasonably limited view of its authority” and failed to adequately consider what he called “basic science” when it evaluated an application for a high-capacity well in Adams County in central Wisconsin for a new farm by the state’s largest dairy operator.

The ruling could have far-reaching implications because of growing use of such wells in Wisconsin, especially in agriculture, and the impact they can have on nearby streams, lakes and wetlands.

But clouding the issue is language added last year to the current state budget by the GOP-controlled Legislature that sought to limit challenges to such projects by citizens.

Read the full article.

Target, Wal-Mart Team Up on Sustainability

From StarTribune, September 5, 2014

Target and Wal-Mart put aside their rivalry on Thursday in their zeal to sell better makeup and toothpaste.

The nation’s two largest discount retailers took the unusual step of co-hosting a meeting in Chicago to push beauty and personal care suppliers to be more transparent about the chemicals that go into their products and to better define what constitutes a sustainable product.

Read the full article.

2015 Wisconsin Local Food Summit Will Be Held in Wisconsin Rapids

From WLFN, September 2014

wilocalfoodnetworklogofinalwebSave the date for the 9th Annual Wisconsin Local Food Summit, an annual event organized by the Wisconsin Local Food Network. The Summit, themed “Seeds for Change: Learning from the Past to Grow Food for Tomorrow,” will be held in Wisconsin Rapids on January 30 and 31, 2015. This year the summit is partnering with the Farm to School Summit, which will be held at the same location on January 29. Join us for two summits in one!

Organizers are currently seeking presenters for the event. Anyone with local food expertise is encouraged to apply. Applications are due by September 26, 2014. Learn more at this link.

Urban Forestry Grants Available

From DNR Wisconsin Forestry Notes, August 2014

Wisconsin communities, tribal governments and non-profit organizations looking for financial help with urban forestry projects are invited to apply for a grant from the Department of Natural Resources. The deadline to apply for an urban forestry grant is October 1 for projects to be completed in 2015. DNR will be hosting an online meeting to answer questions from potential grant applicants on September 22 at 1:30 pm. Details about the meeting and the grant program can be found online.

Read the full newsletter.


Colorado Researchers Probe Parkinson’s Disease Causes, Treatments

From The Denver Post, 9/1/14

The corn rows are high and tassled, pumpkins are gaining girth and, amid these signs the fall harvest is near, evidence is growing that farmers and others who live or work around pesticides are at greater risk for neurogenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

There is also new hope as Colorado researchers exploit genetic and other tools to find and test drugs they think have the potential to stop and even reverse the devastating neurological damage of the disease. Read the full article.

In Plastics and Cans, A Threat to Women

From the New York Times, August 28, 2014

A few years ago, Jodi Flaws, a bioscientist at the University of Illinois, began testing a theory about the risks to women posed by the widely used industrial compound bisphenol A, or BPA.

A series of studies had suggested that it could damage developing ovaries. But nobody knew how. So for a month, Dr. Flaws dosed young female mice with a BPA solution at a level comparable to estimated human exposure in the United States. She then examined their ovaries, focusing on the follicles, which contain the eggs.

The effect of the BPA was immediately obvious. Read the full article.

New Publication Discusses Wisconsin Water Trends

By CLUE, August 28, 2014

The Center for Land Use Education and its partners in the Center for Watershed Science and Education, Wisconsin Lakes Program, Center for Community Economic Development, Wisconsin Wetlands Association, and Water Action Volunteers contributed to a new publication on water, which is available on the CLUE website. Water Megatrends is 16 pages with lots of maps, figures, and charts. It covers the water cycle, Wisconsin’s water resources, water use, health, economics, recreation, and water policies. The Land Use Megatrends series covers many other topics including forests, recreation, housing, climate change, energy, and agriculture.


Heavy Metal Songs: Contaminated Songbirds Sing the Wrong Tunes

From Environmental Health News, August 28, 2014

Standing in the woods along the South River, Kelly Hallinger held the microphone up to capture the cacophony of songs, one at a time: the urgent, effervescent voice of the house wren, the teakettle whistle of the Carolina wren and the sharp, shrill notes of the song sparrow.

It was the summer after her freshman year at the College of William and Mary, and Hallinger was working with her professor, ecologist Dan Cristol, to investigate the effects of mercury left behind by a factory. Over and over she recorded birdsong, visiting various sites in the woods and along the shore, some polluted, some unpolluted.

When she got back to Williamsburg with her tape recorder, Hallinger sorted through the hours of bird songs. She turned them into digital files in the computer, then analyzed them. The differences were striking: The wrens and sparrows along the contaminated South River were singing simpler, shorter, lower-pitched songs.

Scientists have long known that mercury is a potent toxicant: It disrupts the architecture of human brains, and it can change birds’ behavior and kill their chicks. But after extensive research in Virginia, scientists have shown that mercury also alters the very thing that many birds are known for – their songs.

Read the full article.

Would You Like Your Receipt? Maybe Not If It’s Still Coated with BPA

From the Washington Post, August 26, 2014

ReceiptBy now, many people are at least aware of the chemical bisphenol A (BPA) and its frequent use in hard plastics that hold food and drink or line metal containers. Almost everyone has some BPA in his or her system. The government’s National Toxicology Program has studied the chemical and expressed “some concern” about its “effects on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures,” though it has found little reason to worry about some of BPA’s other purported health impacts.

At any rate, knowing that it’s there allows consumers to make their own decisions about purchasing and storing food in containers that have BPA. Less well-known is that BPA is still turning up on cash register receipts, which you and I handle nearly every day. BPA is absorbed through the skin; this study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in February, showed an increase in the chemical in the urine of people who handled thermal paper receipts like the ones produced at some grocery stores, ATMs and gas pumps, for two hours. It’s not clear whether the amount of BPA on receipts poses a risk to your health, but it’s not something we should have to worry about, because there are ways to produce this product without it.

Read the full article.

The War on Coal in the American Midwest

One of the nation’s biggest power producers is aggressively ramping down its reliance on coal.

By Daniel Gross, Slate, August 19, 2014

CoalWhen coal industry veterans in states such as West Virginia and Kentucky invoke a “war on coal,” they’re talking about a conspiracy—a cabal of federal bureaucrats who don’t like the industry (or modernity, or energy) trying to drive a job creator and economic-growth engine out of business.

But the reality is much different. A host of economic, political, and environmental concerns are pushing organizations—many of them profit-seeking businesses—to try to use less coal or stop using it altogether. The big increase in the production of natural gas, the sharp rise in renewables, state efforts to improve air quality, and stricter standards promulgated by the federal government are pushing utilities to act: either to install expensive new controls on coal plants or shut them down. Coal isn’t being banned or outlawed. But the rapidly changing environment is pushing businesses to reconsider its use.

We reported earlier this month on the Canadian province of Ontario, which is coming to the end of an 11-year campaign to rid its electricity generation system of coal. But a more significant campaign is being waged in the U.S., where coal still accounts for about 35 percent of electricity generation, by one of the industry’s leading players: NRG. Through aggressive acquisitions, NRG has grown into one of the largest power producers in the country.

Read the full article.

California Drought Transforms Global Food Market

From Bloomberg News, August 11, 2014

For more than 70 years, Fred Starrh’s family was among the most prominent cotton growers in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Then shifting global markets and rising water prices told him that wouldn’t work anymore.

So he replaced most of the cotton plants on his farm near Shafter, 120 miles northwest of Los Angeles, and planted almonds, which make more money per acre and are increasingly popular with consumers in Asia. “You can’t pay $1,000 an acre-foot to grow cotton,” said Starrh, 85, crouching to inspect a drip irrigator gently gurgling under an almond tree.

Such crop switching is one sign of a sweeping transformation going on in California — the nation’s biggest agricultural state by value — driven by a three-year drought that climate scientists say is a glimpse of a drier future.

Read the full article.

Back to the Land

Environmental and cultural concerns spark an interest in natural burials—and CALS soil scientists are lending their expertise

From GROW, Wisconsin’s magazine for the life sciences, Summer 2014

When Jerry Kaufman’s family was selecting his final resting place, they knew which one they didn’t want: The cemetery behind the strip mall. “My father was a planner,” says daughter Ariel Kaufman. “He wasn’t a strip mall person. It just didn’t feel right.”

Jerry Kaufman, a UW professor emeritus of urban and regional planning who died in 2013, was a holistic thinker. His work involved looking at seemingly incongruent places and systems that affect our daily lives and figuring out ways to make them work together. After retiring in 2001 after 30 years on campus, he continued to serve as board president of the Milwaukee-based urban agriculture nonprofit Growing Power, a position he held for some dozen years.

Fittingly, when Kaufman died, he was interred in the Natural Path Sanctuary at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice and Sustainability near Verona. Burial sites there are incorporated into a 25-acre nature preserve located near a training center for beginning farmers featuring a community-supported agriculture program.

“The center has these other activities that are part of life—the peace, justice and sustainability work and the community food program,” says Ariel Kaufman. “It’s not like death is separate from life. They fit together.”

Read the full article.

The Case Against Sugar

From Chemical and Engineer News, August 4, 2014

Sugar is toxic. The fat and sodium we’ve spent so much time fretting over may in fact be the lesser of the evils in our diet. New evidence suggests that sugar—and possibly artificial sweeteners—might be the ultimate cause of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and liver disease

Natural sugars in our diet aren’t the ones on trial here. It’s added sugars that are under greater scrutiny than ever before. Former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s 2012 effort to curb the sale of supersized soft drinks put a spotlight on the added sugars in soda. But added sugars are prevalent in many foods and beverages: coffee and sports drinks, juices, grain-based desserts, candy, and ready-to-eat cereals.

Read the full article.

Low Water Levels on Portage County River Cause Concern

From Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, August 2, 2014

PloverRiverThe Little Plover River in Portage County has once again fallen below minimally accepted levels set by state regulators to maintain the health of one of Wisconsin’s most closely watched waterways.

Since late June, the river has dropped below minimum levels. A University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point researcher says the situation reflects the results of his own research showing chronically low flows as summer irrigation kicks into full swing.

“With a dry July we’ve had a lot of withdrawals — it’s sparked a lot of pumping,” said George Kraft, a professor of water resources at UW-Stevens Point, who believes the region’s shallow aquifer can’t afford the heavy water use.

The Little Plover runs about 6 miles before it empties into the Wisconsin River. It attracted national attention when parts of the river ran dry in 2005. American Rivers named the Little Plover one of the nation’s 10 most endangered in an annual assessment in 2013.

Read the full article.

Exposure to Pesticides When Pregnant Linked to Three Generations of Disease

By Newsweek, July 24, 2014

In the post-Silent Spring 1960s, when the pesticide DDT was discovered to be toxic to humans and wildlife and to persist for years in the environment, farmers and landscapers turned enthusiastically to Methoxychlor. The pesticide—also commercially known as Chemform, Methoxo, Metox or Moxie—had a much shorter half-life and was billed as the safe alternative to DDT. Now, new research argues that exposure to the pesticide could cause diseases three generations later, in offspring who were never exposed to the Methoxychlor themselves.

Read the full article.