Dear EarthTalk: What is the scientific consensus on all the extreme weather we've been having -- from monster tornadoes to massive floods and wildfires? Is there a clear connection to climate change? And if so what are we doing to be prepared? -- Jason Devine, Summit, Pa.
Extreme weather does not prove the existence of global warming, but climate change is likely to exaggerate it -- by messing with ocean currents, providing extra heat to forming tornadoes, bolstering heat waves, lengthening droughts and causing more precipitation and flooding.
"A changing climate leads to changes in the frequency, intensity, spatial extent, duration and timing of extreme weather and climate events, and can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events," reported the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an independent group of leading climate scientists convened by the United Nations to provide the world with a clear scientific view on the current state of knowledge in climate change and its potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts.
While most scientists don't dispute the link between global warming and extreme weather, the once skeptical public is now starting to come around -- especially following 2011, when floods, droughts, heat waves and tornadoes took a heavy toll on the U.S. According to a poll conducted by researchers at Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, four out of five Americans reported personally experiencing one or more types of extreme weather or a natural disaster in 2011, while more than a third were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these events. And a large majority of Americans believe that global warming made several high profile extreme weather events worse, including record high summer temperatures nationwide, droughts in Texas and Oklahoma, catastrophic Mississippi River flooding, Hurricane Irene and an unusually warm winter.
The IPCC wants world leaders to err on the side of caution in preparing their citizens for extreme weather events that will likely become more frequent; earlier this year they released a report entitled "Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation" to help policy makers do just that. The report is considered a must read in coastal, arid and other especially vulnerable areas.
As for the U.S. government, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tracks weather and storms, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency deals with the impacts of extreme weather and other disasters. But critics would like to see Congress and the White House do more to increase Americans' preparedness. "The U.S. (in 2011) experienced a record fourteen weather-related disasters each in excess of a billion dollars -- and many more disasters of lesser magnitudes," reported the nonprofit Climate Science Watch. "Yet the U.S. has no national climate change preparedness strategy; and federal efforts to address the rising risks have been undermined through budget cuts and other means."
CSW and others are calling for the creation of a new cabinet-level agency called the National Climate Service to oversee both climate change mitigation as well as preparedness for increasingly extreme weather events.
Dear EarthTalk: I've always suspected that perfumes and colognes must not be too healthy simply because of the way the smell of most of them bothers me. Am I correct? Is there information available on this issue? -- Lucinda Barry, Minneapolis
Ahhh, the sweet smell of petrochemicals! The Environmental Working Group reports that, while many popular perfumes, colognes and body sprays contain trace amounts of natural essences, they also typically contain a dozen or more potentially hazardous synthetic chemicals, some of which are derived from petroleum. To protect trade secrets, makers are allowed to withhold fragrance ingredients, so consumers can't rely on labels to know what hazards may lurk inside that new bottle of perfume.
"A rose may be a rose," reported EWG. "But that rose-like fragrance in your perfume may be something else entirely, concocted from any number of the fragrance industry's 3,100 stock chemical ingredients, the blend of which is almost always kept hidden from the consumer."
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of more than 100 groups seeking transparency about chemicals in cosmetics, commissioned independent laboratory tests that revealed 38 secret chemicals in 17 leading fragrances. The top offenders? American Eagle Seventy Seven topped the list with 24, followed by Chanel Coco with 18 and Britney Spears Curious and Giorgio Armani Acqua Di Gio each with 17.
"The average fragrance product tested contained 14 secret chemicals not listed on the label," reported EWG, which analyzed the data. "Among them are chemicals associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions, and many substances that have not been assessed for safety in personal care products."
EWG added that some of the undisclosed ingredients are chemicals "with troubling hazardous properties or with a propensity to accumulate in human tissues." Examples include diethyl phthalate, a chemical found in 97 percent of Americans and linked to sperm damage in human epidemiological studies, and musk ketone, which concentrates in human fat tissue and breast milk.
EWG explains that ingredients not in a product's "hidden fragrance mixture" must be listed on the label, so makers disclose some chemicals but "lump others together in the generic category of `fragrance'."
EWG blames the U.S. government in part, pointing out that the Food and Drug Administration "has not assessed the safety of the vast majority" of secret chemicals used in spray-on products such as fragrances.
"Fragrance secrecy is legal due to a giant loophole in the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973, which requires companies to list cosmetics ingredients on the product labels but explicitly exempts fragrance," reported EWG. As such, the cosmetics industry has kept the public in the dark about fragrance ingredients, "even those that present potential health risks or build up in people's bodies."
For more information, check out EWG's May 2010 "Not So Sexy" report, available on the group's website. Also, EWG's SkinDeep database serves as an evolving source of information on the ingredients (and their health risks) in thousands of cosmetics and related products widely available on store shelves.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.