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Umbra on Christmas trees

Dear Umbra, Please settle our office dispute. Which is better for the environment: real or fake Christmas trees? Some believe that cutting down juvenile trees, displaying them for two weeks, then throwing them in the garbage is destructive, wasteful, and highly unfriendly to the environment. Others say that the Christmas-tree business keeps land that would otherwise be developed in trees, if only for a short while. Besides, fake trees are made of plastic, which is made from petroleum. (But you can keep using them for many years.) TrishaWashington, D.C. Dearest Trisha, Ah, yes, that annual question: What does the Gristmas …

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Umbra on cat-pee stains and dry cleaning

Dear Umbra, I am aware of how polluting regular dry cleaners can be and therefore make a point to wash clothes at home. Recently, however, my charming cat peed on my comforter. I was wondering if you knew of any environmentally friendly ways to clean "dry clean only" clothes or, in this case, comforters. HeidiFalls Church, Va. Dearest Heidi, I've seen feather comforters with both dry-cleaning and home-washer options, so be sure to read the tag. If home washing is an option, plain vinegar in the washer may help remove the odor. Spot application of diluted white vinegar may also …

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Umbra on doggie-doo bags

Dear Umbra, For years, I faithfully brought my canvas bags to the grocery store, leaving plastic bags for the environmentally uninformed. A few months ago, though, I adopted a dog, and I now find myself with a dilemma. I need to pick up all of his solid excrement, and having no compost or any other area for it to go (I live in the city), I need to use plastic bags to take care of it. I hope you have another suggestion for something I can use to pick up after my pup (and please don't say anything that would …

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Umbra on Wal-Mart

Dear Umbra, Why is Wal-Mart evil? This is really a request for more information. I have often heard that the company has a weak environmental track record, treats its employees poorly, and generally is Satan incarnate. However, when challenged on this position, I have no data. My opponents argue that shopping in bulk reduces packaging. I also have to admit that a case of Pellegrino for $10 pulls me closer to the dark side. I am growing weak. Please combat my temptation with information. Hurry before I have lost my soul. James Washington, Penn. Dearest James, Why Wal-Mart is evil …

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Umbra on the environmental impacts of soy

Dear Umbra, I'm interested in learning more about the treatment and genetic modification of soy and how prevalent this is. I think a lot of folks choose products such as soy milk because they think they are making a better choice for the earth, as well as themselves. I think this is an overlapping issue and qualifies for your help. Perhaps a slant toward educating us on the state of soy farming and production would be an acceptable angle for you. CherylSierra Club, San Diego ChapterSan Diego, Calif. Dearest Cheryl, Your wish is my command. Or maybe my wish was …

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Umbra on the health/environment dividing line

Yowza. A few weeks back, in response to a question from a reader named Cassandra about the relative merits of soy milk, I asked your opinion on the dividing line between health and environmental concerns. Cassandra wanted to know if she could continue eating soy, which she considered an environmentally sound choice, without increasing her risk of breast cancer. The health/environment line is always fuzzy to me, but entering the nutrition and cancer debates seemed like a reach. That letter made me wonder: What, exactly, are the boundaries of my columnal mandate? And so I asked you, dear readers, for …

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Umbra on birds bursting into flames

Dear Umbra, I saw the following on the CNN website. Can this possibly be true? I see birds hit, land on, peck at, and poop on power lines all the time, but I've never seen one burst into flames. LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Weather forecasters predicted little relief Monday for firefighters battling wildfires that have scorched thousands of acres and forced hundreds of people to leave their homes in California. Firefighters tackling the 5,700-acre Foothill blaze, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, said they hoped to contain it in a canyon Monday afternoon. The wildfire began when a …

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Umbra on protecting decks

Dear Chip, You may remember me; we met most recently at Jenny's parents' house for dinner when you all were here in New Jersey. Anyway, the reason I'm writing you is because I'm looking for some advice. Do you have any recommendations on environmentally conscious ways to protect household decks? Lori and I just bought a house and we need to finish the deck, but we are hesitant to use a bunch of chemicals that will just seep into the ground and ocean over time. Being the president of an environmentally focused publication, I thought you might have some answers, …

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Umbra on lead pipes and drinking water

Dear Umbra, I live in New York City, which is reputed to have some of the best drinking water in the U.S. But I also happen to live in an old building that probably has lead pipes, so I buy Poland Spring water in five-gallon jugs each month. I'd prefer to drink tap water, but I don't know how to find out whether my building's water is polluted or not. How do I go about this? If it does have lead (etc.), what are the most affordable ways of treating it? AshleyNew York, N.Y. Dearest Ashley, Go tap water! Hooray! …

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Umbra on UV ratings

Dear Umbra, Our radio station provides daily information regarding ultraviolet ratings. I am curious about what these ratings actually represent, and why they change so dramatically. For example, for the past few years, most ratings have been between three and seven. Now we are getting ratings of 10. I doubt the ratings are directly related to Dobson units, which measure the amount of atmospheric ozone present, because they seem to change from day to day (and do not seem particularly related to cloud cover -- or do Dobson units change that frequently?). Any clarification would be welcomed. JackHamilton, Ontario, Canada …

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