Dear EarthTalk: It might seem obvious, but what would be the primary benefits of public transit as an alternative to the private automobile if our country were to make a major commitment to it? -- James Millerton, Armstrong, Pa.
The benefits of making a major commitment to building up and efficiently managing a larger and more comprehensive public transit network are many.
According to the National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates, an organization that represents grass-roots transit coalitions, organizations and advocates, expanded public transit, coordinated with greener development and other "operational efficiencies," can reduce our carbon footprint by some 24 percent, which is significant given that carbon dioxide output from the transportation sector as a whole account for 28 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. After all, buses and trains burn much less fuel per rider than a car with a single rider in it. Switching to public transit for a typical 20-mile round trip commute would decrease a commuter's annual greenhouse gas emissions by some 4,800 pounds a year, which is equal to about a 10 percent reduction in a two-car household's carbon footprint.
Another group, the American Public Transit Association, reports that current use of public transit in the U.S. already saves 37 million metric tons of CO2 annually, equivalent to the emissions resulting from electricity generation to power some 5 million typical American homes.
A massive shift to public transit would also be good for our pocketbooks. According to NAPTA, U.S. car owners can save as much as $112 billion a year in gasoline and other vehicle costs. "Public transportation offers an immediate alternative for individuals seeking to reduce their energy use and carbon footprints," reports NAPTA. "Taking public transportation far exceeds the combined benefits of using energy-efficient light bulbs, adjusting thermostats, weatherizing one's home, and replacing a refrigerator."
As to reducing oil use, NAPTA says public transit already saves Americans the equivalent of 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually, or some 900,000 automobile fill-ups every day. And the Texas Transportation Institute reports that individuals who live in areas served by public transportation save more than 300 million gallons of fuel a year. Meanwhile, individuals can save upwards of $9,000 a year by taking public transportation instead of driving and by living with one less car.
An improved quality of life is yet another benefit of more public transit. In some ways public transit can be considered a life saver: It produces 95 percent less carbon monoxide and nearly 50 percent less nitrogen oxide -- both key triggers for asthma and other respiratory and cardiovascular health problems -- per passenger-mile than driving a private vehicle. Also, transit users tend to be healthier than car commuters because they walk more, which increases their fitness levels. Public transit use also means fewer cars on the road, thus reduced travel times -- and less stress and road rage accordingly -- for everyone. TTI reports that Americans living in areas served by public transportation save themselves almost 800 million hours in travel time every year.
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that children are sicker today than they were a generation ago and that pesticides have played a major role? -- Maria Jenkins, Clewiston, Fla.
It's impossible to say with certainty that our modern reliance on pesticides is directly causing more of our children to get sick more often, but lots of new research points in that direction. An October 2012 report by Pesticide Action Network North America entitled "A Generation in Jeopardy" examines dozens of recent studies and concludes that the influx of pesticides in our society is taking a heavy toll on our kids' health and intelligence.
"Children today are sicker than they were a generation ago," reports the group. "From childhood cancers to autism, birth defects and asthma, a wide range of childhood diseases and disorders are on the rise." PANNA's assessment of the latest science "leaves little room for doubt: pesticides are one key driver of this sobering trend."
Pesticides are all around us today. We are exposed to them via the foods we eat and the air we breathe. As a result, we all carry trace amounts of them in our bloodstreams. Children's bodies, since they are still developing, are particularly susceptible to health problems from pesticide exposure. Kids routinely come in contact with pesticides inside their homes and schools and out in their backyards, schoolyards and parks. Even family pets, many of which wear pesticide-laden flea collars and powders, can be a source of pesticide exposure for children. According to PANNA, even extremely low levels of pesticide exposure can cause significant health problems, particularly during pregnancy and early childhood. New research links pesticide exposure to harm to the structure and functioning of the brain and nervous system.
"Pesticides may harm a developing child by blocking the absorption of important food nutrients necessary for normal healthy growth," reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Another way pesticides may cause harm is if a child's excretory system is not fully developed, the body may not fully remove pesticides." Exposure to pesticides during certain critical developmental periods can permanently alter a growing child's biological systems. The result, warns PANNA, is an increase in birth defects and early puberty and noticeable increases in asthma, obesity, diabetes and some cancers.
What's appalling is that we have known about these dangers for decades yet have done little about it. "Nearly 20 years ago, scientists at the National Research Council called for swift action to protect young and growing bodies from pesticides," says PANNA. "Yet today, U.S. children continue to be exposed to pesticides that are known to be harmful in places they live, learn and play." For its part, the EPA does evaluate children's exposure to pesticide residues in common foods and evaluates new and existing pesticides to assess risks, creating guidelines and regulations accordingly. But many would like to see the EPA take a stronger stand against the widespread use of pesticides across the U.S.
There are several ways individuals can minimize pesticide exposures for themselves and their loved ones. Buy organic food whenever possible. Avoid chemical sprays and bug traps inside and out of the home. And steer clear of farms and other agricultural lands that regularly get sprayed with pesticides.
EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.