Umbra Fisk

Ask Umbra®

Advice for Living Green

Yours is to wonder why, hers is to answer (or try). Send your green-living questions to Umbra.

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Umbra Fisk is Grist Research Associate II, Hardcover and Periodicals Unit, floors 2B-4B.

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 …

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 …

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 …

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, …

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! …

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 …

Umbra on the mysteries of produce code numbers

Dear Umbra, I recently learned that the UPC numbers on produce indicate whether the item is conventionally grown (beginning with a 4), organically grown (beginning with a 9), or genetically modified (beginning with an 8). I like to buy organic, locally grown produce at my local health food store whenever possible, but recently at a large grocery story I noticed some tomatoes with a UPC number that began with a 3. What does a 3 indicate? RobinLouisville, Ky. Dearest Robin, Sounds like you are thinking of the PLU code, the four or five digits on the super-sticky little sticker stuck …

Umbra on the eco-relevance of health concerns

Dear Umbra, As a practicing vegan for quite some time now, I take pride in my knowledge of nutrition and my ability to enrich my body through a varied diet with all the essentials. For the past five years or so, I have heavily relied on soy products for protein and other nutrients. Recently, however, I have heard that soy products increase estrogen levels, which in turn increase the risk of cancer (specifically breast cancer). I also have been told to stay away from soy because so many people are allergic to it. I always thought soy was great and …

Umbra on hemp fabric

Dear Umbra, You didn’t mention hemp as a fabric alternative. JordanMarquette, Mich. Dearest Jordan, No, I didn’t. Thank you for writing such a concise letter; it stood out among the 4 million other hemp letters and cut straight to the point. I apologize for the omission. Hemp is currently a narrowly available fabric with a prohibitively high cost and a limited fashion palette. That said, it holds a lot of promise as a high-yield crop with a boggling array of uses — rope, carpets, shoes, cars, food, fuel, oil — that suggest it could one day save the world. Daydreaming …

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