Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

A senior editor at Mother Jones, Kiera covers health, food, and the environment. She is the author of the new book Raise: What 4-H Teaches 7 Million Kids—and How Its Lessons Could Change Food and Farming Forever (University of California Press).

 

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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.

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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.

Fetus Snowglobe, Anyone?

| Fri Aug. 10, 2012 2:43 PM EDT

A Japanese 3-D printing company offers expecting moms a replica of their fetus suspended in Lucite: 

I mean, words can't even describe the weirdness.

My Trip to the Chevron Refinery Fire

| Tue Aug. 7, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
The plume of smoke at the Chevron refinery, seen from the 80 East

When I heard about the fire at the Chevron refinery last night, I decided to hop in my car and check it out. At about 8:30, I headed out on the 80 freeway, east from Berkeley. Before I even saw the plume, I could smell it: an acrid odor similar to burning plastic. When I got to the plant, the security guards at the gate told me that no one was allowed inside, so I joined a half dozen news trucks across the street. Sirens began to sound, and another reporter told me he thought they were supposed to alert nearby residents to take cover.

He was right: Chevron issued a shelter-in-place alert—meaning that residents should stay inside, close the doors and windows, and block cracks with damp rags or tape—for the surrounding area soon after the fire began at 6:15 and didn't lift it until close to 11 PM, after the fire was out.

After about a half an hour of waiting around, Chevron spokeswoman Heather Kulp came out to talk to the assembled group of reporters outside. She told us that a diesel leak had caused a fire at the No. 4 crude unit, and that one worker was being treated for a minor burn on his wrist. She couldn't answer any questions about the air quality, or what exactly the health hazards of breathing in the fumes might be. But I later learned from local news reports that about 200 people flooded local hospitals complaining of difficulty breathing and eye irritation. The Chevron crew took air samples throughout the evening and said it didn't find any dangerous compounds.

Yet when I left the refinery at around 10:30, it still smelled awful, and my eyes were getting itchy. I could smell the fire for most of my drive back home to Oakland. Today the fire is out, but there's no official report on how much diesel burned. The refinery is one of the biggest in the US; it can process about 240,000 barrels of crude a day. There's speculation that the fire will cause a spike in California gas prices, though it's not clear yet how much.

 

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