Railway Mushrooms, Solar Sneeze Reflex and the Video Fireplace

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The "Video Fireplace," a 60-minute color tape of a roaring fire, complete with andirons and authentic crackling sound.

This short series of reports includes news on Japan’s idea to use old railway tunnels to grow mushrooms, a treatment for the solar sneeze reflex and the safest, most boring hearth, the video fireplace.

Railway Mushrooms, Solar Sneeze Reflex and the Video Fireplace

If your days don’t seem as sunny and bright as they used to be, don’t blame your attitude–it’s the weather. A recent study indicates that the country is becoming cloudier. Using U.S. National Weather Service data, William L. Seaver of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and James E. Lee of the MITRE Corporation compared the number of cloudless days in 45 U.S. cities during two periods, 1900-1936 and 1950-1982. All but one of the cities, they found, had more sunny days during the first half of the century than during the second half. St. Louis dropped from 7.2 to 4.7 cloudless days per month, Washington, D.C., went from 5.3 to 4.4 sunny days and Los Angeles lost nearly three days of sun per month–from 10 cloudless days to 7.6. Fort Worth, Texas, showed an “insignificant” increase in sunny days: from 7.4 to 7.5. Climatologists don’t know for sure why the change is occurring. One theory suggests that jet contrails are “seeding” the skies, encouraging condensation and cloud formation. Another blames air pollutant particles for creating the seeding effect. And a third theory holds that the polar weather front has been shifting southward and is bringing in more clouds.

Tunnel Vision

In an attempt to find ways to augment its otherwise dwindling income, Japan National Railways has discovered that old railway tunnels are perfect for growing mushrooms. The abandoned tunnels–dark, moist and stable in temperature–offer ideal conditions for growing shimeji mushrooms, popular in Japan. The company is turning the cast-off caverns into profitable fungus farms.

Bad Combination

Natural-foods cooks have long scorned aluminum utensils, saying that the metal binds with certain minerals–such as phosphorus and calcium–and robs foods of nutritive value. Recent evidence linking aluminum with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders has added to their case, particularly in light of studies proving that aluminum compounds can be released from pots and pans during cooking. Now more fuel has been added to the fire: Experiments indicate that the leaching process is “dramatically enhanced” by water containing fluoride, at levels normally used in municipal fluoridation. In a letter published in Nature magazine, scientists report that water containing one pan per million (ppm) of fluoride frees nearly 200 ppm of aluminum when boiled 10 minutes in aluminum utensils– that’s 1,000 times the amount of aluminum released in nonfluoridated water. Prolonged boiling raises aluminum concentrations even higher, to about 600 ppm.

Heinz Gets Tough

H.J. Heinz Company has warned growers that it will no longer buy their produce for use as baby food if the crops have been treated with any of 12 chemicals now under “special review” by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Pesticides that, in the process of being registered, are identified as possibly hazardous are given special review status and intensively investigated by the EPA.) Heinz has given its growers a list of the compounds in question and warned that it will begin testing their crops for residues of the chemicals this year. The pesticides identified by Heinz: alachlor, aldicarb, captan, linuron, cyanazine, captafol, carbofuran, carbon tetrachloride, daminozide, ethylene oxide, TPTH and dinocap. Heinz is the nation’s third largest baby food manufacturer. The two other big makers, Gerber Products Co. and Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., have not yet taken similar action.

Acid Jax

Jacksonville, Florida, the country’s main port of entry for foreign cars, may lose millions of dollars in business because of acid rain. Last summer, when 2,000 cars were damaged by the worst of 11 recorded acid showers in Jacksonville, BMW of North America decided to stop importing autos through that city. At least some of the 19 other foreign vehicle manufacturers that use the port are considering changing, too. The matter is of grave concern to city officials, since import autos generate some $67.8 million for the port each year. The municipal government has formed a group to identify sources of, and control measures for, acid precipitation.

The Solar Sneeze Reflex: Medical History?

Physicians David M. Lang and William C. Howland III, of the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation, report they may have found a treatment for “solar sneeze reflex,” the common phenomenon of sneezing when entering sunlight. In studying the efficiency of various allergy treatments, the doctors discovered that antihistamines and decongestants also diminished the solar sneeze reflex in some patients. Who might benefit from their findings? Baseball outfielders, airplane pilots and, the researchers note, “punt return specialists, sky divers and high-wire acrobats, for whom a solar sneeze may be more than just a light matter.”

Good News for Wildlife

Environmental Reconstruction Newsletter is a fine little four-page monthly packed with practical tips for encouraging and enjoying wildlife in your back yard. Produced by David B. Donnelly, a New Jersey landscaper who “specializes in creating natural habitats that are beneficial to wildlife and humans alike,” the publication is aimed primarily at Garden State residents and others living in the Northeast . . . but anyone interested in nature, gardening, bird watching or commonsense landscaping will benefit from ERN’s friendly, fact-filled format. A one-year subscription is $10 from Environmental Reconstruction News, Hightstown, NJ.

Reinventing Fire

Entrepreneur Steve Siporin has done us all the dubious favor of developing what may be the world’s safest, and most boring, fireplace: The “Video Fireplace,” a 60-minute color tape of a roaring fire, complete with andirons and authentic crackling sound. Siporin, who says he created the tape for people who don’t have fireplaces but do have televisions, is also the man behind the “Video Aquarium” and “Video Ocean Waves.”

No-Bug Bath Oil

It’s inexpensive, pleasantly fragrant, soothing to the skin and–oh, by the way, it also makes a terrific insect repellent. It’s Avon’s Skin-So-Soft bath oil, perhaps the hottest, least-kept secret on the repellent market today. Researchers in Lee County, Florida, recently tested the bath oil against the two best-selling commercial repellents and found Skin-So-Soft just as effective as the others. Since it’s also generally less expensive, the product has become popular among road and construction crews, farmers, gardeners and other outdoor workers. Avon Corporation, meanwhile, isn’t about to market the product as a repellent, or even admit that it can be used as such. After all, EPA approval would be required. Besides, according to Camille Scifo, manager of Avon Products Public Relations, Skin-So-Soft is already the world’s best-selling bath oil. Why rock the boat by bringing bugs into the picture?

–Nancy W. Olson