Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

Mood Lighting at Fast Food Joints Makes You Less Fat

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

Soft lighting and smooth jazz not only add romance to your fast-food dining experience, they also make you less likely to overeat, says a new study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Researchers transformed part of a Hardee's in Champaign, Illinois into a swanky fine-dining establishment. They left the rest of the restaurant as it was. The (very breathlessly reported) results:

Researchers hypothesized that participants in the fine-dining part would consume more as the relaxed atmosphere would cause them to linger longer and order more food than those in the fast food environment. Interestingly results showed that even though participants in the fine-dining area ate for longer than those in the main eating area they actually consumed less food! Those in the fine dining area were also no more likely to order extra food. Another surprising result is that even though participants in the fine-dining part ate less food they actually rated the food as more enjoyable, so changing the atmosphere can change food consumption and food satisfaction!

The fancy-pants diners consumed 18 percent less food than their casual counterparts. Classy!

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Butterball Turkey Employee Admits to Animal Abuse

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Back in February, the nonprofit animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals posted a video documenting workers at a North Carolina Butterball turkey facility abusing the birds. (Warning: The video is extremely graphic.)

On Tuesday, reports Mercy For Animals, one of the workers caught on tape, Brian Douglas, pled guilty to felony cruelty to animals. His sentence, according to MFA:

Douglas will serve a sentence of 30 days imprisonment, followed by 6 months intensive probation and 36 months of supervised probation. Douglas was also ordered to pay $550 in fees and fines, and provide a DNA sample to the state, and will be subject to warrantless searches. Four other Butterball employees were also charged with cruelty to animals. Their cases are still pending.

The video shows Douglas and other workers kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. Pretty hard to imagine, especially if you've ever hung out with turkeys. My hens were some of the most endearing animals I've ever known. Read about my turkey adventures here.

CHART: What's a Polar Bear Worth?

| Thu Aug. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Via the excellent Jon Mooallem, a chart by the Canadian government (PDF) that (kind of creepily) sums up exactly how much a polar bear is worth:

Wash Your Organic Produce. No, Really.

| Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Bugs can easily carry bacteria onto organic produce.

This summer I've been on a blueberry tear. I buy a little container from the farmers market or supermarket and open it up as soon as I get home, popping the sweet little orbs into my mouth as I'm putting away my groceries. Only occasionally do I give rinsing them more than a passing thought. After all, I usually splurge for the organic kind. How bad could a little chemical-free dirt really be? Do I really have to wash my innocent-looking blueberries?

According to Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst with the Environmental Working Group, the answer is an unequivocal yes, for several reasons. One is what the produce industry refers to as "pesticide drift": The wind can—and frequently does—blow chemicals from nearby conventional fields onto organic crops.* Pesticide contamination can also happen in the warehouse, since many produce companies use the same facilities to process organic and conventional products. In that case, companies are supposed to use the label "organically grown" instead of "organic," which can mislead consumers. "The labels are really confusing," Lunder says. "When people say they're transitional organic, there might be traces left in the soil. If you see no-spray, they still might be using synthetic fertilizer, for example."

But the main reason to wash organic produce is to get rid of germs. "Bacterial contamination is huge," Lunder says. You might remember, for example, that one of the culprits in the giant E. coli spinach outbreak of 2006 was bagged organic spinach.

Do Menstruating Women Attract Sharks?

| Thu Aug. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

After yesterday morning's important news that menstruation doesn't increase your risk of being attacked by a bear, a friend tweeted a great question at me: "Ok, but it's SHARK WEEK! What about swimming with your Aunt Flo?"

I immediately set about emailing shark experts. The Monterey Bay Aquarium declined to comment. The Vancouver Aquarium was more willing to put a toe in the water. "Honestly, I think the jury is still out on this question," emailed Ann Dreolini, a spokeswoman. "According to what I have read so far, there are people who believe the chance of a shark attack is greater while menstruating…and others who think this has absolutely no impact on shark attacks at all."

But Ralph S. Collier, a shark behavior expert who has been documenting shark attacks since 1963 and now heads up the nonprofit research and conservation group Shark Research Committee, told me about a study that his friend and fellow shark expert H. David Baldridge conducted in the late '60s. I couldn't find the study online, but according to Collier, Baldridge introduced several human body fluids—including menstrual blood—to captive wild sharks in open ocean pens to see if any would elicit a feeding frenzy. The only one that did cause such a reaction was peritoneal fluid, the liquid found in our abdominal cavity. (Unfortunately, said Collier, Baldridge's grant money ran out before he could figure out what was so bewitching to sharks about our gut fluid.)

Collier noted that blood from animals native to the marine environment do elicit feeding frenzy reactions in sharks. "But our blood is different from a sea otter's blood or cetacean blood," he said. "Our blood is from a terrestrial environment." He theorizes that the scent of human blood doesn't send the message to sharks that there is an animal in distress nearby, fit for a meal.

Still, he said, Baldridge's study was not comprehensive, and he advises people with abrasions not to go into the ocean. "If it's a young lady for whom it's that time of the month," he added, sounding somewhat uncomfortable, "it's better to be safe than sorry. Better to wait till everything is back to normal to go into the ocean."

Tell that to Marie Levine, founder and executive director of another nonprofit called the Shark Research Institute. "I've been diving for decades and even got my period while underwater with a school of hammerheads—the sharks were not interested and I had to fin like crazy to get close to them," she wrote to me in an email.

And then there's this page over at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Ichthyologist George H. Burgess writes:

Menstrual blood almost certainly can be detected by a shark, and I'm sure urine can be as well. Do we have positive evidence that it is a factor in shark attack? No, and until some menstruating and non-menstruating divers volunteer to take part in a controlled test we'll never prove it. In my opinion it likely is attractive to sharks in certain situations.

Interestingly, according to Burgess, 90 percent of recorded shark attacks have involved men. But that doesn't necessarily mean that sharks are gender-biased:

This reflects a historic pattern of more males engaged in marine aquatic activities, especially those that put humans most at risk, e.g. surfing, diving, long distance swimming, warfare. It in no way can be attributed to sharks "preferring" males over females. In recent years proportionately more females are being attacked because more females are engaging themselves in riskier, formerly males-only activities.

In conclusion, Burgess advises: "Don't worry about it. Lots of women safely dive while menstruating." On the other hand, if you prefer not to participate in freezing and dangerous sports made more dangerous by the presence of sharks, "I'm having my period" seems as good an excuse as any.

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