Dear EarthTalk: I understand that mountaintop removal as a way of coal mining is incredibly destructive. Didn't a report come out recently that named major banks that were funding this activity? -- Seth Jergens, New York, N.Y.

Yes, it's true that many major banks invest in companies that engage in the environmentally destructive practice of mountaintop removal coal mining, whereby the tops of mountains are removed by explosives to expose thin seams of recoverable coal. The wasted earth and other materials are either put back onto the mountain top in an approximation of their original contours, wreaking havoc on local ecosystems and biodiversity, or dumped into neighboring valleys, polluting lakes and streams and jeopardizing water quality for humans and wildlife.

According to the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network, this dumping -- especially throughout Appalachia where MTR is most prevalent -- "undermines the objectives and requirements of the Clean Water Act." The group adds that some 2,000 miles of streams have already been buried or contaminated in the region. "The mining destroys Appalachian communities, the health of coalfield residents and any hope for positive economic growth."

This past April, RAN teamed up for the second year in a row with another leading non-profit green group concerned about MTR, the Sierra Club, in publishing a "report card" reviewing 10 of the world's largest banks in regard to their financing of MTR coal mining projects. The new 2011 version of "Policy and Practice" takes a look at the MTR-related financing practices of Bank of America, CitiBank, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, GE Capital, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, PNC, UBS and Wells Fargo.

What did they find? Since January 2010, the 10 banks reviewed have provided upward of $2.5 billion in loans and bonds to companies practicing MTR. While some of the banks -- Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC, UBS and Credit Suisse -- adopted policies limiting their financing of MTR, few actually pulled funding in place from any such activities upon adopting such policies. Citibank, despite announcing publicly in 2009 that it would limit its involvement in MTR, doubled its investments in the business in 2010.

RAN and the Sierra Club are also keeping a close eye on UBS which, soon after stating that it "needs to be satisfied that the client is committed to reduce over time its exposure to (MTR)," went ahead and acted as a paid advisor on the merger of Massey Energy, which operated the West Virginia mine where 29 men died last year, and Alpha Natural Resources. This merger created the largest single MTR company in the country, now responsible for some 25 percent of coal production from MTR mines.

The report card grades each bank based on its current position and practice regarding MTR investments, and calls on the banks to strengthen their policies and cease their financial support for coal companies engaging in MTR. "The `best practice' ... is a clear exclusion policy on commercial lending and investment banking services for all coal companies who practice mountaintop removal coal extraction," RAN said.

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RAN and the Sierra Club hope that by exposing the impact these banks are having on the environment through their financing programs, they can help alert the public and policy makers to the need to outlaw MTR coal mining altogether.

Contacts: Rainforest Action Network, www.ran.org; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I'm interested in getting a new tattoo, but recently found out that red tattoo ink contains mercury. Is this true of other tattoo inks as well? Are there any eco-friendly alternatives? -- John P., Racine, Wash.

It is true that some red inks used for permanent tattoos contain mercury, while other reds may contain different heavy metals like cadmium or iron oxide. These metals -- which give the tattoo its "permanence" in skin -- have been known to cause allergic reactions, eczema and scarring and can also cause sensitivity to mercury from other sources like dental fillings or consuming some fish. While red causes the most problems, most other colors of standard tattoo ink are also derived from heavy metals (including lead, antimony, beryllium, chromium, cobalt nickel and arsenic) and can cause skin reactions in some people.

Helen Suh MacIntosh, a professor in environmental health at Harvard University and a columnist for the website Treehugger, reports that as a result of a 2007 lawsuit brought by the American Environmental Safety Institute, two of the leading tattoo ink manufacturers must now place warning labels on their product containers, catalogs and websites explaining that "inks contain many heavy metals, including lead, arsenic and others" and that the ingredients have been linked to cancer and birth defects.

Of course, exposure to mercury and other heavy metals is hardly the only risk involved with getting a tattoo. The term tattoo itself means to puncture the skin. Tattoo ink is placed via needles into the dermis layer of the skin, where it remains permanently (although some colors will fade over time). Some people have reported sensitivity springing up even years after they first got their tattoo; also, medical MRIs can cause tattoos to burn or sting as the heavy metals in the ink are affected by the test's magnetism.

Beyond the long-term risks of walking around with heavy metals injected into your body's largest organ (the skin), getting a tattoo in and of itself can be risky business. If the tattoo parlor's needles and equipment aren't properly sterilized in an autoclave between customers, you could be exposing yourself to hepatitis B or C, tuberculosis, mycobacterium, syphilis, malaria, HIV or even leprosy.

"The potential risk of infectious spread from tattooing (particularly due to Hepatitis B) is high enough that it is a practice that should be avoided by pregnant women to safeguard the health of the baby (and that of the pregnant woman) whose immune system is down and is much more vulnerable to these types of infection," reports dermatologist Audrey Kunin, who runs the popular Dermadoctor website. Kunin advises to be careful about choosing a tattoo parlor: "Make sure the place is reputable, perhaps check with the health department to see if there have been past claims against the parlor in question if you still have doubts." She adds that since tattoos are essentially open wounds, they must be cared for properly, especially in the first few weeks, to stave off infection.

Those who want to go ahead with getting a tattoo anyway despite the risks should consider steering clear of colors derived from heavy metals. Dr. Kunin reported that black might be the safest permanent tattoo ink; it is often derived from a substance called carbon black and rarely causes any kind of sensitivity issues. If your heart is set on red in your tattoo, ask around to see if any tattoo parlors in your area are willing to work with non-metallic organic pigments that lend a red color such as carmine, scarlet lake, sandalwood or brazilwood. There are non-metallic alternatives available for many other popular tattoo ink shades, too.

Contacts: Treehugger, www.treehugger.com; Dermadoctor, www.dermadoctor.com.

EarthTalk is by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss of E -- The Environmental Magazine (www.emagazine.com). Send questions to: earthtalk@emagazine.com.