Dear Ms. Household Environmentalist: What is a reasonable policy for turning off a home computer? The printer? A photocopy machine? Just overnight? If you won't be using it for an hour?
Bill Younger, an energy specialist at the Washington State Energy Office's Energy Extension Service, asked himself the same question recently. Here's what his research turned up:
The conventional wisdom is that turning your PC on and off shortens its life, and that you're best off just leaving it on all the time. However, it turns out, according to Mr. Younger, that it shortens the computer's life from, say, 20 years to a mere 15. Now, if you hope to be using the same computer in 20 years, don't turn it off. Just switch the monitor off every night and leave the computer on. Most experts believe that computers in the year 2010 will bear no resemblance to today's, so switching it off at night won't appreciably shorten a machine's useful life span.
Younger also dug out a few of his electrical gadgets, did some calculations and showed that turning off his computer evenings and weekends saved the Extension Service $30 a year. And that figure is low, since other places may pay as much as three times more than Seattle's cheapo 4.5 cents a kilowatt hour. Ergo, Younger says, turning off the machine at the end of the workday is a good idea.
Printers and photocopiers should be kept on all day if they are used frequently throughout the day. Definitely turn them off at the end of the workday, however. And if you're buying a photocopier, buy one of the newer, energy-efficient models with a "standby" feature. This allows you to shut down some of the electricity-using elements of the machine that don't take long to warm up, while leaving on whatever that mysterious piece is that seems to take forever to warm up.
If you use your printer infrequently during the day, turn it off between uses. In addition to wasting electricity, laser printers can begin to emit small amounts of harmful ozone gas.
Dear Ms. H.E.: When I dust, it seems generally that the dust seems to fly and resettle. I had used, at one time, spray on the dust cloth that seemed to work better at picking up the dust, but my sense is that these commercial sprays are environmentally damaging. What do you suggest?
Philip Dickey, home toxics guru of the Washington Toxics Coalition, and a very tidy person, suggests you try this: Buy a misting bottle at the grocery store and fill it with water. Then use it -- on the finest mist setting -- to ever-so-slightly dampen your dusting rag. The slightly damp rag will lock onto your dust, solving your problem, yet won't be wet enough to damage your furniture finish. Mr. Dickey points out that if you use furniture polish -- a non-toxic one, of course -- a rag slightly dampened with this will also keep the dust from flying around. Look for mineral oil-based polish that doesn't have any dire warnings on the label.
Dear Ms. H.E.: Does the pollution level of various neighborhoods vary much? Is the level much higher, say, near the freeway or other congested areas?
This is a rather delicate question. Thousands of Americans live near highways and in very congested areas. Many, maybe even most, of them don't have any other options -- housing near freeways tends to be less expensive than housing in quieter neighborhoods, and affordable housing is an endangered species in most cities.
However, if you have a choice, by all means live away from busy streets. Road dust contains a number of carcinogens. The soil around houses near very busy streets is often highly contaminated with lead and other heavy metals and some nasty things called poly aromatic hydrocarbons. The air is bound to have higher concentrations of dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen. And the noise from very busy streets can add to stress and interfere with your attention span.
Now, here comes the tricky part. All this bad stuff flying around in the air lands on the roof and walls of your house or building. Rain washes it down into the soil around your foundation. That means older homes tend to have more contaminated soil around them than newer homes do. So your newish home on the freeway may have cleaner soil around it than does your ex-wife's old house in a much quieter neighborhood.
If you do live in an older home near a very busy street or freeway, your best bet is to control track-in. Declare your home a shoe-free zone, as in everyone takes off their shoes at the door. If this is too radical for you (and a number of readers have already written to tell me what a twisted idea this is, so don't feel obliged to add your 2 cents), buy a very good mat and ask everyone to wipe their feet thoroughly every time they come in the house. A good vacuum cleaner can make a big difference, too.
Last, your first question: Do pollution levels vary from neighborhood to neighborhood? They do, of course, as do the types of pollution you'll run across. If you live in the country, you may have problems with nitrates and pesticides contaminating your well water. Live in an industrial area? Solvents in the ground, water and air may be a problem. There are no guarantees. If you think you might have a problem, contact your local public health department. If you're not satisfied with their response, look for an environmental group in the area to see if one of their employees can point you in the right direction.