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Dear EarthTalk: What are the primary environmental concerns in the aftermath of the big earthquake in Haiti? -- Frank Dover, Portland, OR


As would be the case after any natural disaster, water-borne illness could run rampant and chemicals and oil could leak out of damaged storage facilities as a result of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that ripped apart Haiti on January 12. Surprisingly, no large industrial spills have been found during initial post-quake rescue efforts, but of course the focus has been on saving human lives and restoring civil order. 


According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the biggest issue is the building waste; some 40 to 50 percent of the buildings fell in Port-au-Prince and nearby towns. “Thousands of buildings suddenly become debris and this overwhelms the capacity of waste management,” says UNEP’s Muralee Thummarukudy, who is directing efforts to collect the waste for use in reconstruction projects.


Even before the quake Haiti had major environmental problems. Intensive logging beginning in the 1950s reduced Haiti’s forest cover from 60 percent to less than two percent today. This lack of trees causes huge soil erosion problems, threatening both food and clean water sources for throngs of hungry and thirsty people. “If you have forest cover, when heavy rain takes place it doesn’t erode the land,” UNEP’s Asif Zaidi reports. “It doesn’t result in flash floods.” He adds that, due to its lack of forest cover, Haiti suffers much more during hurricanes than does the neighboring Dominican Republic.


Compounding these ecological insults is Haiti’s fast growing population, now 9.7 million and growing by 2.5 percent per year. This has pushed millions of Haitians into marginal areas like floodplains and on land that could otherwise be used profitably. “Most fertile land areas are often used for slums, while hillsides and steep landscapes are used for agriculture,” reports USAID’s Beth Cypser. The resulting sanitation problems have stepped up cases of dysentery, malaria and drug-resistant tuberculosis among Haiti’s poverty-stricken population. Trash-filled beaches, smelly waterways, swarms of dead fish and tons of floating debris stand testament to Haiti’s water pollution problems—now exacerbated by the earthquake.


“We need to…create mechanisms that reinforce better use of natural resources," says UNEP’s Zaidi. Prior to the quake, UNEP had committed to a two-year project to bolster to restore Haiti’s forests, coral reefs and other natural systems compromised by the island’s economic problems. Providing access to propane to encourage a shift from charcoal-burning stoves is an immediate goal. Longer term, UNEP hopes the program will help kick-start reforestation efforts and investments in renewable energy infrastructure there. 


Perhaps the silver lining of the earthquake in Haiti is the fact that millions of people around the world now know about the plight of the country’s people and environment, and donations have started to pour in. Anyone interested in helping relief efforts in Haiti can send a text message triggering a small donation to the American Red Cross (text “HAITI” to 90999 and $10 will be donated and added to your next phone bill). Those concerned about clean water specifically should donate to World Water Relief, a non-profit focusing on the installation of water filtration systems in Haiti and other distressed areas of the world.


CONTACTS: USAID,; UNEP,; American Red Cross,; World Water Relief,



Dear EarthTalk: I recently got my car detailed at a local place and then gasped at the chemical fumes when I got inside. Are there green detailers out there, or products that I could use myself to keep my vehicle clean and my family out of harm’s way? -- David Berkowitz, Newton, MA


Traditionally, auto detailing has employed a range of not-so-green-friendly products such as ammonia, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nonphenolethoxolates (NPEs), abrasive detergents, and chemical-based leather, vinyl, fabric and carpet treatments. Inside the car, they can off-gas harsh airborne pollutants; when washed down storm drains they can wreak havoc on public water supplies. 


Unfortunately, while environmental awareness is beginning to crop up among auto detailing services (online discussion boards are full of posts from professional detailers sharing their tips for greener, more effective products and formulations), finding a green detailing service isn’t very easy just yet, so doing it yourself might be the only way to ensure that the environment and your health are spared chemical insult. There are green detailing products and kits out there, easily found through an Internet search.


Two leading suppliers are Laura Klein’s Green Cleaning, and Mean Green. These companies, among others, specialize in degreasers, dashboard dressings, tire cleaners, spot removers and other products made with natural, biodegradable water- and plant-based substances (including coconut, palm, citrus, corn and soy), combined and concentrated to be as effective as or better than their chemical-laden counterparts. 


Another way to be green and clean at the same time is to choose wash and wax products that don’t contain harsh chemical surfactants—and as such don’t require water-wasting, polluting rinses. No-Wet Waterless Concepts and Optimum Polymer Technologies are two leading manufacturers for such goods.


Do-it-yourselfers should be careful not to dump wastewater into nearby storm drains not intended to carry toxic run-off. Most reputable car wash businesses go to great lengths to make sure the water, soaps, oils and other dirt from your car doesn’t end up polluting groundwater, rivers and streams, and so should you. If you clean your car in your own driveway or garage, try to collect any run-off and dispose of it into a drain or toilet that will send it through the sewage treatment system, not into the curbside storm run-off drain that may well lead directly to a local water body or shoreline.


While finding a green detailer may not be easy, you can start by asking those operators in your region if they currently use environmentally-friendly products and/or processes. If not, ask them if they would be amenable to greening up their operations for the sake of attracting customers like you.


Some detailers that have already taken the green plunge include: Ecodetail Services of Sacramento, CA; Car Wash Concepts of Aliso Viejo, CA; Gia’s Detailing of Long Island, NY; Scott’s Mobile Auto Detailing of Tarrant County, TX; and Elite Detailing Service Inc. of Plainfield, IL. These providers share an interest in environmental protection, use minimal amounts of water and other resources, and dispose of run-off according to the stringent standards set forth under the federal Clean Water and Clean Air acts.


CONTACTS: Laura Klein’s,; Mean Green,; No-Wet Waterless,; Optimum Polymer Technologies,


SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; Read past columns at: EarthTalk® is now a book! Details and order information at: / Issue 109 - September 2018
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