The sewage of fat cities like Little Rock and Toledo is easy to distinguish from that of skinny ones like Denver and San Diego.
If someone were to ask you what distinguishes skinny cities from fat ones, you might think of the prevalence of fast-food joints, the average length of automobile commutes, or the relative abundance of parks and jogging trails. But there's also another, more underground factor: their sewage.
Researchers with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee collected raw sewage samples from the intakes of municipal wastewater treatment plants in 71 cities around the country. Their results, published last month in mBio, the American Society for Microbiology's open-access journal, showed that the microbial content of that sewage predicted each city's relative obesity with 81 to 89 percent accuracy.
The finding actually isn't all that surprising, says lead author Ryan Newton, a visiting professor at UWM's School of Freshwater Sciences. Other studies have shown that bacterial imbalances in your intestines can lead to metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes. Newton's study, however, is the first to demonstrate that those microbial differences also play out across entire populations, even after our poop gets flushed, mixed together, and sent through miles of pipes.
The UWM study was enabled by computing advances that have allowed scientists to rapidly sequence microbial populations and look for patterns in the results. Other researchers are using similar techniques to look for correlations between gut bacteria and a wide range of health conditions.
Scientists hope other data derived from sewage could help predict epidemics and track public health trends.
Newton isn't the only scientist who sees sewage as a promising place for data dives. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Underworlds project, which began in January, will study sewage for the presence of viruses such as influenza and polio; bacterial pathogens that cause cholera typhoid fever, and other diseases; and biochemical molecules ranging from antibiotics to illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine. Scientists hope the resulting data could help predict epidemics and track other public health trends within particular neighborhoods.
As scientists gain a better understanding of the interplay between microbes and human health, they may eventually be able to look at municipal sewage to figure out which communities would be the best to target with public health campaigns designed to, say, get people to eat less sugar or more vegetables.
And just as important, sequencing sewage could eliminate the thorny problem of doing public health surveys. Unlike people, your poop can't lie about what you had to eat.
Arguably no existing technology holds more potential to slow climate change and reboot the economy than the lithium-ion battery. Quartz reporter Steve LeVine chronicles the global race to develop a battery cheap and durable enough to supplant the internal-combustion engine. The field is littered with hype and people left in the dust—including LeVine, whose book, in its slow march to press, didn't get to the solid-state battery technology that's now at the cutting edge. Even so, he offers a revealing deep dive into the challenges of creating a killer app for the planet.
Outlet Creek watershed in Northern California's Mendocino County. Scott Bauer
Northern California pot farmers are using up all of the water that normally supports key populations of the region's federally protected salmon and steelhead trout.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a new study, published last week in the journal PLOS One, that examined four California watersheds where salmon and trout are known to spawn. In the three watersheds with intensive pot cultivation, illegal marijuana farms literally sucked up all of the water during the streams' summer low-flow period, leaving nothing to support the fish.
"The current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."
Author Scott Bauer, a biologist with the state department of fish and wildlife, estimated the size and location of outdoor and greenhouse pot farms by looking at Google Earth images and accompanying drug enforcement officers on raids. He did not include "indoor" grows—marijuana grown under lamps in buildings.
After visiting 32 marijuana greenhouses in eight locations and averaging the results, Bauer extrapolated his findings to all greenhouses in the study area—virtually nothing else is grown in greenhouses in this part of the country. The sites contained marijuana plants at a density of about one per square meter, with each plant (taking waste and other factors into account) using about six gallons of water a day. Overall, he calculated, pot operations within the study yielded 112,000 plants, and consumed 673,000 gallons of water every day.
And that is water the area's fish badly need. The Coho salmon population is listed as threatened under both state and federal Endangered Species Acts, and is designated as a key population to maintain or improve as part of the state's recovery plan.
Bauer collected his data last year, at a time when California's drought had already become its worst in more than 1,200 years. When I spoke to him at the time, he told me that pot farming had surpassed logging and development to become the single biggest threat to the area's salmon. Now that that the drought is expected to extend into a fourth year, the same streams could run dry again this summer, and remain so for an even longer period of time.
Overall, the outdoor and greenhouse grows consume more than 60 million gallons of water a day during the growing season—50 percent more than is used by all the residents of San Francisco.
"Clearly, water demands for the existing level of marijuana cultivation in many Northern California watersheds are unsustainable and are likely contributing to the decline of sensitive aquatic species in the region," Bauer's study concludes. "Given the specter of climate change"—and the attendant rise of megadroughts—"the current scale of marijuana cultivation in Northern California could be catastrophic for aquatic species."
A Palestinian boy in Hebron, in the Israel-occupied West Bank.
A few weeks before Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his controversial address to Congress, the Jerusalem Post reported that the Israeli Prime Minister was considering a campaign trip to Hebron, a right-wing settler community in the Israel-occupied West Bank. The proposed March 10 trip to Hebron, which would have been the first by an Israeli PM in more than a decade, raised eyebrows among Israel's political class and inflamed tensions with Palestinian groups. Last week, Netanyahu called it off, citing security threats.
"The Hebron Fund has supported, either directly or indirectly, a wide array of acts that are definitely not charitable," says Avaaz lawyer John Tye.
Here in the United States, meanwhile, few politicians have questioned why American taxpayers continue to subsidize the Hebron settlers, accused by international observers of human rights violations that include thefts, battery, and murder. In 2003, the most recent year for which figures are available, an estimated 45 percent of the settler community's funding came from the Brooklyn-based Hebron Fund, whose status as a tax-exempt nonprofit allows Americans to write off donations to the group.
"The Hebron Fund has supported, either directly or indirectly, a wide array of acts that are definitely not charitable," says John Tye, the legal director for the global activist group Avaaz, which last week petitioned the IRS to revoke the Hebron Fund's nonprofit status. "They are basically using a small group of Jewish settlers in the West Bank to push Palestinians out of their homes. These settlers are arming themselves, they are engaged in military and paramilitary acts, some of them have connections to terrorism, and they are committing a wide range of crimes against Palestinians."
The Hebron Fund declined to make anyone available for comment for this story, or to respond to my written questions.
Hebron, a community of some 200,000 Palestinians located about 30 miles south of Jerusalem, is home to several ancient Jewish holy sites. The modern Jewish occupation began in 1967, after the Six Day War. The Hebron Fund was founded in 1979 to support the settlers, who now number around 850.
After years of conflicts between Palestinians and settlers, the historic center of Hebron has come to be known as "The Ghost Town." It is largely abandoned, with the doors of Arab shops welded shut by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) during the second intifada. Palestinians are forbidden from entering much of the area. In other parts of downtown Hebron, Jewish settlers live in buildings above Palestinian shops. The shopkeepers have stretched nets and metal grates over the streets to catch the garbage that settlers routinely throw from their windows:
Grates erected to catch garbage thrown by settlers living above ISM Palestine
The behavior of Jewish settlers in Hebron has been repeatedly denounced by human rights groups. In 2001, Human Rights Watch called Hebron "the site of serious and sustained human rights abuses," including "a consistent failure [by IDF] to protect Palestinians from attacks by Israeli settlers." In 2011, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem wrote that settlers "have been involved in gunfire, attempts to run people over, poisoning of a water well, breaking into homes, spilling of hot liquid on the face of a Palestinian, and the killing of a young Palestinian girl."
In recent months, vandals in the Hebron area have destroyed Palestinian olive groves, an Israeli human rights group reports.
In 2013, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed "deep concern" at the abusive treatment and harassment directed at a Palestinian activist in Hebron by settler groups and the IDF. Breaking the Silence, another Israeli human rights group comprised of IDF veterans, offers guided tours of Hebron—but only rarely, the group writes on its website, due to "the Hebron settlers' violence towards our tours and the limited ability of the Hebron police to protect our tours from this violence."
Just in the past two months, according to B'Tselem, vandals in the Hebron area have destroyed Palestinian olive groves in four locations.
Racist graffiti in Hebron: "Gas the Arabs." JDL is the Jewish Defense League. Jill Granberg
At times, the Hebron Fund has specifically sought to raise money for controversial settler activities. In 2007, according to Salon, it held a fundraiser on a cruise ship in New York's Hudson River to support a settler who'd taken property from a Palestinian family. A year and a half later, the Israeli government ruled that the house had been illegally seized from the family and ordered the settlers out. Once evicted, the settlers set fire to Palestinian houses, olive trees, and cars—25 people were wounded, including a man shot at close range.
In 1974, the Supreme Court said the IRS could revoke the nonprofit status of Bob Jones University for its refusal to admit black students.
The United States tax code does not provide detailed information about what can disqualify groups from nonprofit status, though precedent suggests that it includes illegal and discriminatory behavior. In 1974, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that the IRS was justified in revoking the nonprofit status of Bob Jones University over its refusal to admit black students.
The Hebron Fund has not released detailed financial information, making it impossible to determine whether it directly bankrolls prohibited activities. Yet Tye of Avaaz argues that the settlements' finances are sufficiently fluid and dependent upon the Hebron Fund to make it inherently complicit in any abuses. "I can't tell you precisely where every dollar has gone," he says. "But when there is a doubt, the legal burden is on the Hebron Fund to produce documents that show how its money is spent."
This isn't the first time a group has asked the IRS to revoke the Hebron Fund's nonprofit status. In 2009, a similar complaint was submitted by the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The IRS never responded.
Though Tye believes there's already sufficient public evidence to revoke the fund's nonprofit status, he at least wants the IRS to conduct a thorough investigation. A spokesman for the IRS declined to comment on the case, citing a federal law that bars the agency from discussing specific taxpayers.
High standards: FlowKana delivers pot from sustainable family farms to your doorstep.
"Hello and welcome," the voice said. "Thank you for joining us on this special evening to learn more about the clean cannabis movement."
I was in a white van, bouncing up a steep hill to a party at an undisclosed location in Berkeley, California. The voice came from an iPhone held up by one of my hosts, a young woman wearing a cocktail dress and a headband of white flowers. "If you do not wish to participate in the cannabis," the voice continued, as meditative music played in the background, "do not have anything the flower girls are carrying."
Duly warned, I was deposited at the front steps of Panoramic Sky, a three-story house designed by a protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright that rents on Airbnb, I later learned, for $2,800 a night. I was wearing a suit I'd bought earlier that day from Neiman Marcus, worried that I didn't own any clothes nice enough for the occasion. "Dress Code: Formal Attire (Great Gatsby meets California)," the invitation had said. A subsequent update noted that lots of "very important people" would be there.