Toxics now, IRE conference later


Since right now I’m technically still on vacation, I’ll delay my stories about the IRE conference until Thursday or Friday when I get back to Ohio. Right now I’m in Boston seeing what there is to see, eating and drinking what there is to eat and drink, with a friend who just graduated from MIT.

But this morning I ended up making posts to Facebook and Twitter about a(n apparently) favorite subject of mine lately, toxics. Why not share with readers here, as well?

This is a thrilling find for me: The Toxic 100.

Compiled by investigators at a UMass think tank, the site provides raw and analyzed data from the EPA and can help you find whether your beloved hometown company is really a dirty scumbag.

Along the same lines, I encourage you to visit The Smokestack Effect, a USA Today report I learned of (at the IRE conference) by the project’s editor, Blake Morrison.

It overlays EPA data about toxic and carcinogenic air emissions with the locations of just about every school in the country — and you can add your own if you don’t see it on there. It ranks each of the 128,000 schools by percentile of how polluted the air is, around (and likely in) them.

The project got started when USA Today heard of a school closing in Cincinnati and obtained data from EPA to rank air quality in different areas around the country. Quickly the paper found that something like 435 schools actually had worse air quality than the one that closed in Cincy. Not many of those 435 have closed yet, and a large percentage of them are in low-income areas.

But if your child or small sibling attends a school in the top 20 percentiles, it’s generally harmful to health, said Morrison. Personally, I wouldn’t send my (future) children to a school in the top 30.

Last but not least, remember the Better World Shopper book that gave us information about products’ impacts on society and the environment? Now it’s hit Web 2.0.

I’ve been fascinated by bar-code scanning technology and its potential for us to retrieve information from the Internet about products — really about any object in the “real world.”

Now the concept behind the Better World Shopper (although not the same group) is fueling a living website called GoodGuide. According to this New York Times article, the site’s 3Gs iPhone (That is, the new iPhone model to be released Friday) application will be able to scan bar codes to get you info about products on the fly.

Talk about awesome. Think of the impact on society if we all shunned products that destroyed us and the Earth. As long as good investigative journalism is retained, compaies won’t be able to keep that stuff a secret in order to make windfall profits.

I had shied away from replacing my current phone with an iPhone out of distaste for consumerism. But if the iPhone itself battles unchecked consumerism in all other areas of my purchasing, doesn’t that justify it? Maybe. Short of Wendell Berry’s idea of a “local economy,” I think this is the best device yet for making the world a better place. Annie Leonard would be proud. (See her Story of Stuff here and on the left sidebar.)

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