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.

Full Bio | Get my RSS |

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.

A Podcast for Caffeine Fiends

| Tue May. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you are a slave to your morning coffee like I am, you might want to take a listen to the latest episode of the Field Trip podcast, which is entirely devoted to the fascinating backstory of your caffeine fix. Highlights include San Francisco's celebrated coffee makers Ritual Roasters spilling the beans on their rigorous taste testing process, and the Field Trip crew bravely sampling the most highly caffeinated coffee in the world.

Have a listen:

Play

Advertise on MotherJones.com

FDA Delays Sunscreen Rules. Again.

| Fri May. 11, 2012 12:08 PM PDT

If you've been following the epic saga of the FDA's long-awaited sunscreen regulations, you probably won't be surprised to hear that the agency has pushed back enforcement of its latest set of rules from this summer to mid-December of this year. The rules—you know, someday—will bar manufacturers from making outlandish claims on their labels (no more SPF 150). But that's not all. Last year, MoJo's Jen Quraishi summarized the regulations in a blog post:

--all sunscreens must be SPF 15 or higher if they claim to prevent sunburn, early aging, and reduce skin cancer risk. Anything under SPF 15 could only be advertised to help prevent sunburn.

--all sunscreens must provide protection against both ultraviolet B radiation (UVB) and ultraviolet A radiation (UVA) in order to be labeled as "Broad Spectrum."

--no more labels that market a sunscreen as either "waterproof" or "sweatproof." The label "sunblock" is also disallowed.

--any product that claims water resistance must also tell consumers how much time they can expect to get SPF protection for while in the water.

--no product can claim to offer immediate protection after application unless they submit data to the FDA and get the FDA's express approval

--sunscreens in the form of wipes, towelettes, powders, body washes, and shampoo cannot be marketed without approved application.

All of which would be a step in the right direction. But as Environmental Working Group pointed out, the new rules continue "to allow oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and several other ingredients in sunscreens despite scientists' concerns about their toxicity."

Classy Hardwood Floors Tied To Sex Abuse in the Amazon

| Wed Apr. 11, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Sawmills line the banks of the river to receive raw lumber from the forest. Here it is processed to rough planks before conditioning and further export.

Cedar and mahogany are woods known for their ability to class up a living room. Both woods are common in high-end furniture; cedar is often used in flooring, and mahogany makes for some fine moldings. But it doesn't come cheap: The wood from one mahogany tree costs about $11,000 on the lumber market; a cedar tree runs about $9,000. The Peruvian Amazon is a major source of these woods for the American market, and a new report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found that between 2008 and 2010, 35 percent of inspected shipments from Peru contained wood from illegal logging operations; the researchers say that the overall figure (including non-inspected shipments) is estimated to be as high as 88 percent. 

The report's authors point out that because of lack of oversight, illegal logging is widespread in Peru—despite the fact that it received $150 million yearly in international support for its forest conservation programs. Although timber operations cash in on the dodgy practices, the overall effect is detrimental not only to the environment, but also to the economy and local people. Researchers in Loreto, where much of the activities take place, estimate that illegal logging losses (due to "tax evasion, non-payment of required fees, and devaluation of standing timber") cost Peru $250 million annually, 1.5 times more than the country earns from all its timber exports combined. The humanitarian cost of logging is also considerable. Consider this moving testimony from one former logger:

Maria, a single mother nearing 50 years of age, had no job. thus, when a neighbor told her about temporary work available as a cook in a logging camp, she thought she had been presented with a good opportunity. The pay seemed good to her: 300 soles per month (approximately US $110), above the average pay for a cook in the city of Iquitos. She would have to leave her children and move to the camp, but it would only be for three months. Unfortunately, things did not turn out as planned. Six months later, she ended up fleeing.

In order to convince her to move to the jungle and leave her children, the habilitadores gave her 250 soles (approximately US $90) as an advance payment. She left Iquitos and traveled one day by river to join up with other people who knew how to get to the camp. From there, days to the middle of the jungle.

Getting there was not the most difficult part. Maria was the only woman in the camp and was surrounded by approximately 25 men, most of whom were between the ages of 20 and 30, and all of whom were strong enough to fell trees measuring more than one meter in diameter. Maria's nightmare began when she realized that the men expected her to not only cook them breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but also provide them with sexual favors.

Maria remembers each night as being a nightmare. "I was there for six months. I barely slept from my fear, always worried that something was going to happen. when I knew they wanted to attack me, I couldn't sleep. thinking they were coming, I would wake up. so that they would think I was awake, I would move, I would get up, I would light my lantern, that is the way I was there, I would sleep on my side. And suddenly it was time to wake up."

America's Top 10 Most-Polluted Waterways

| Mon Apr. 2, 2012 3:00 AM PDT

If you are a fly-fisher, a rafter, or heck, just a person who drinks water, here is some troubling news: Our waterways are in rough shape. An eye-opening new report (PDF) from Environment America Research and Policy Center finds that industry discharged 226 million pounds of toxic chemicals into America's rivers and streams in 2010. The pollution included dead-zone-producing nitrates from food processors, mercury and other heavy metals from steel plants, and toxic chemicals from various kinds of refineries. Within the overall waste, the researchers identified 1.5 million pounds of carcinogens, 626,000 pounds of chemicals linked to developmental disorders and 354,000 pounds of those associated with reproductive problems.

In the report are a few goodies (or baddies, really) that are worth ogling. First up, there's this map of the most heavily polluted waterways in the United States, broken down by state:

And if you're curious about which waterways suffer from the most pollution, here's the top 10:

Finally, a list of the top 20 polluters—composed mostly of steel manufacturers, chemical plants, and food processing operations:

It's important to note that the vast majority—if not all—of these releases are perfectly legal. I reached out to all of the companies on the list above and received a response from several. They all basically told me the same thing: "All discharges meet permit requirements," Cargill said. "This is a natural process that is fully licensed, and included as part of our wastewater discharge reporting," echoed McCain Foods.

We'll have to take their word for it, since the companies are not required to release the results of their chemical safety testing to the public, nor do they have to reveal how much of each chemical they are releasing. The Clean Water Act doesn't even apply to all bodies of water in the United States; exactly how big and important a waterway must be to qualify for protection has been the subject of much debate. Rivers get the big conservation bucks; they're the waterway equivalents of rhinos and snow leopards. But pollutants in oft-neglected ditches, canals, and creeks—the obscure bugs of the waterway world—also affect ecosystems and our drinking water quality. Sean Carroll, a federal field associate in Environment America's California office, estimates that 60 percent of US waterways aren't protected. "The big problem," he says, "is that we don't know how big the problem is." 

The situation has gotten slightly better since the last time Environment America conducted a study; overall waterway pollution decreased by 2.6 percent from 2007 to 2010. There's still a lot of room for improvement, Carroll says. Environment America is calling on Obama to extend the protections offered by the Clean Water Act before the end of his first term. A list of the group's specific recommendations is here.

Mon Nov. 11, 2013 4:00 AM PST
Mon Sep. 16, 2013 11:28 AM PDT
Mon Jul. 15, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Mon May. 13, 2013 3:00 AM PDT
Thu Dec. 27, 2012 9:52 AM PST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 11:02 AM PDT
Tue Sep. 18, 2012 1:37 PM PDT
Tue Aug. 28, 2012 11:50 AM PDT
Thu Aug. 23, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Mon Aug. 20, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Thu Aug. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Fri Aug. 10, 2012 11:43 AM PDT
Tue Aug. 7, 2012 9:49 AM PDT
Thu Jul. 19, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 12:43 PM PDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Tue May. 15, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Fri May. 11, 2012 12:08 PM PDT
Mon Apr. 2, 2012 3:00 AM PDT
Fri Mar. 16, 2012 11:59 AM PDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Fri Jan. 27, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Fri Jan. 13, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Sun Jan. 1, 2012 4:00 AM PST
Wed Dec. 28, 2011 7:21 AM PST
Tue Dec. 27, 2011 9:26 AM PST
Wed Dec. 14, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Wed Dec. 7, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Tue Nov. 29, 2011 12:23 PM PST