Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health

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iStock

It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

Want to Save the Environment? Eat Less Meat

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iStock.com/ac_bnphotos

It may be time to order a veggie burger instead of a rack of ribs. For years, climate scientists have suggested eating less meat to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, but the researchers behind a new study say dietary changes are essential to prevent global catastrophe.

The study—published in the journal Nature—is the most comprehensive analysis of how the global food system affects the environment, The Guardian reports. In addition to greenhouse gases being released by livestock, deforestation and water shortages are a couple of other ways that current food production methods hurt the planet. Researchers say there is no easy fix to slow climate change, but reducing our intake of meat is one way that everyone can help out.

“There is no magic bullet,” Marco Springmann, who led the study, tells The Guardian. “But dietary and technological change [on farms] are the two essential things, and hopefully they can be complemented by reduction in food loss and waste."

That doesn’t mean you have to become a vegetarian or vegan, though. Researchers recommend a “flexitarian” diet, which involves occasionally eating meat. For this to make a positive impact, the average global citizen would have to eat 90 percent less pork, 75 percent less beef, and half the number of eggs they normally consume. If you simply can't give up steak, the Climate, Land, Ambition & Rights Alliance (CLARA) recommends consuming just two 5-ounce servings of meat per week. Researchers in the Nature study say beans, nuts, and seeds are all recommended sources of protein.

By their estimates, a global shift towards a flexitarian diet would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 56 percent, and would reduce other environmental impacts by 6 to 22 percent. They say the global food system emitted around 5.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide in greenhouse gas emissions in 2010, in addition to using vast amounts of cropland, fresh water, and fertilizers containing nitrogen and phosphorus (which pollute waterways as agricultural runoff).

“If socioeconomic changes towards Western consumption patterns continue, the environmental pressures of the food system are likely to intensify, and humanity might soon approach the planetary boundaries for global freshwater use, change in land use, and ocean acidification,” researchers write in their paper. In other words, the current food system might not be able to sustain the projected population of 10 billion people in 2060.

The study follows the recent release of a UN report in which scientists warned that we have only 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Failing to do so would result in more extreme weather events, including drought, floods, and severe heat. If you're looking for other ways to reduce your carbon footprint, try flying less, biking more, and turning down your thermostat. Every bit helps.

[h/t The Guardian]

How Are Hurricane Categories Determined?

NOAA via Getty Images
NOAA via Getty Images

Residents of Panama City and other areas in the Florida Panhandle are in the midst of Hurricane Michael, a Category 4 storm that Governor Rick Scott warned is the "worst storm" to hit the area "in a century."

Given that North Carolina is still battling the effects of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall less than a month ago, we've become accustomed to hearing about hurricanes, and to predicting what sort of damage they might cause based on their category number. But how do meteorologists categorize these often-deadly storms, and how does that scale work?

First, a quick primer: Hurricanes are tropical cyclones that occur in the Atlantic Ocean and have winds with a sustained speed of at least 74 mph. A tropical cyclone, in turn, is a storm system that develops in the tropics and is characterized by a low pressure center and thunderstorms that produce strong winds, rain, and storm surges. Tropical cyclone is a generic name that refers to the storms' geographic origin and cyclonic rotation around a central eye. Depending on their location and strength, the storms are called different things. What gets dubbed a hurricane in the Atlantic, for example, would be called a typhoon if it happened in the northwestern Pacific.

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A HURRICANE AND A TROPICAL STORM?

Simply put: Wind speed. When tropical cyclones are just starting out as general areas of low pressure with the potential to strengthen, they’re called tropical depressions. They’re given sequential numbers as they form during a storm season so the National Hurricane Center (NHC) can keep tabs on them.

Once a cyclone’s winds kick up to 39 miles per hour and sustain that speed for 10 minutes, it becomes a tropical storm and the NHC gives it a name. If the cyclone keeps growing and sustains 74 mph winds, it graduates to hurricane.

ONCE WE CALL IT A HURRICANE, HOW DO WE CATEGORIZE IT?

In order to assign a numeric category value to a hurricane, meteorologists look to the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, which was developed as a classification system for Western Hemisphere tropical cyclones in the late 1960s and early '70s by structural engineer Herbert Saffir and his friend, meteorologist Robert Simpson, who was the director of the NHC at the time.

When Saffir was working on a United Nations project to study low-cost housing in hurricane-prone areas, it struck him that there was no simple, standardized way of describing hurricanes and their damaging effects, like the way the Richter scale is used to describe earthquakes. He created a five-level scale based on wind speed and sent it off to Simpson, who expanded on it to include the effects on storm surge and flooding. Simpson began using it internally at the NHC, and then in reports shared with emergency agencies. It proved useful, so others began adopting it and it quickly spread.

HOW DOES THE SCALE WORK?

According to the NHC, the scale breaks down like this:

Category 1 storms have sustained winds of 74 to 95 mph. These “very dangerous winds will produce some damage: Well-constructed frame homes could have damage to roof, shingles, vinyl siding, and gutters. Large branches of trees will snap and shallowly rooted trees may be toppled. Extensive damage to power lines and poles likely will result in power outages that could last a few to several days."

Category 2 storms have sustained winds of 96 to 110 mph. These “extremely dangerous winds will cause extensive damage: Well-constructed frame homes could sustain major roof and siding damage. Many shallowly rooted trees will be snapped or uprooted and block numerous roads. Near-total power loss is expected with outages that could last from several days to weeks."

Category 3 storms have sustained winds of 111 to 129 mph. This is the first category that qualifies as a “major storm” and “devastating damage will occur: Well-built framed homes may incur major damage or removal of roof decking and gable ends. Many trees will be snapped or uprooted, blocking numerous roads. Electricity and water will be unavailable for several days to weeks after the storm passes."

Category 4 storms have sustained winds of 130 to 156 mph. These storms are “catastrophicand damage includes: “Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

Category 5 storms have sustained winds of 157 mph or higher. The catastrophic damage entailed here includes: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

While the Saffir-Simpson scale is useful, it isn’t the be-all and end-all for measuring storms, as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) pointed out on Twitter in 2013:

IS THERE ANYTHING WORSE THAN A CATEGORY 5?

Not on paper, but there have been hurricanes that have gone beyond the upper bounds of the scale. Hypothetically, hurricanes could up the ante beyond Category 5 more regularly. The storms use warm water to fuel themselves and as ocean temperatures rise, climatologists predict that potential hurricane intensity will increase.

Both Saffir and Simpson have said that there’s no need to add more categories because once things go beyond 157 mph, the damage all looks the same: really, really bad. Still, that hasn't stopped several scientists from suggesting that maybe the time has come to consider a Category 6 addition.

Timothy Hall, a senior scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, recently told the Los Angeles Times that if the current global warming trends continue, he can foresee a time—likely by the end of the century—where wind speeds could blow past 230 mph, which could create conditions similar to a F-4 tornado (which has the power to lift cars off the ground and send them hurtling through the air with relative ease).

“If we had twice as many Category 5s—at some point, several decades down the line—if that seems to be the new norm, then yes, we’d want to have more partitioning at the upper part of the scale,” Hall said. “At that point, a Category 6 would be a reasonable thing to do."

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2013.

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