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 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 …

Umbra on our “throw it away” culture

Dear Umbra, I hope I am not the only person who is disgusted with and frustrated by the current “throw it away” philosophy that so many large companies are pushing. Everything from window cleaner to facial wipes is being sold in single-use packages. Why? Don’t these companies and consumers realize that, for one thing, landfill capacity is becoming an endangered species? Then there is the toilet brush with the flushable head. Why in the world are they harping on how germy one’s bowl brush is? What do they think we use the brush for besides cleaning the bowl — brushing …

Umbra on recycling pencil stubs

Dear Umbra, I’m looking for a place that accepts pencil stubs (one to two inches long) to recycle into new pencils. I’ve found recycled pencils online — made from denim, plastic, recovered wood, and paper currency. But what can I do with my stubs? PhoenixCovington, Ky. Dearest Phoenix, All the waste-reduction tips tell you to stop using wooden pencils, but that doesn’t help with the ones you already have. Plus wooden pencils are chewable, a vital aspect for many scriveners. A pencil holder may be just the retro gizmo for you. I refer not to a jar to hold the …

Umbra on whether to leave the engine running

Dear Umbra, I have a question that has been nagging me for a while, and I would really like to have it answered once and for all. You see, I deliver pizzas for a living right now, and so I make many frequent stops and starts at people’s houses during a shift. I always turn off my engine whenever I make a delivery or am waiting at the store for the next order to come up, because I believe in doing my part to keep our air clean and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But I keep hearing the argument that turning …

Umbra on choosing the least evil gasoline company

Dear Umbra, Every week I scan the gasoline signs looking for the cheapest deal, while knowing that what I pay in rock-bottom prices may come at the expense of environmental integrity and social justice. I’d like to choose my brand of gas with more conscience. Would you help? I’d love to see a ranking or rating system of the major gasoline brands. It could let us know which ones are meaningfully pursuing renewable energy sources, protecting indigenous political and property rights at the source, and making efforts to minimize the environmental impact of their oil extraction and refinement. Are any …

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