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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Is the WHO Saying Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

There's been much freaking out about a World Health Organization announcement (PDF) about the link between mobile phone use and cancer: The group now considers radiation from cell phones a possible carcinogen. Sounds scary, but what does it actually mean?

Over at BoingBoing, there's a good post that explains why the WHO news isn't really news at all. It doesn't represent any new scientific findings; rather it basically tells us what we've known for a while: that while very limited evidence suggests there might be a connection between some brain tumors and radiation, there isn't enough to say for sure that cell phone use causes cancer.

Frustrating though this may be, it's par for the course for epidemiology. The fact of the matter is that proving causation is just really hard. Indeed, as the New York Times points out, other examples of "possibly carcinogenic" substances include some dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides, but also coffee and pickles.

Even the results of the Interphone project, the largest and most highly anticipated epidemiological study of cell phones and cancer to date, were maddeningly inconclusive when they came in last year. The researchers from the 13 participating countries did find that although very heavy cell phone users were about 40 percent more likely to develop glioma, but there were so many potentially confounding methodological issues that the ultimate conclusion was that cell phone use does not significantly increase cancer risk for the vast majority of people.

Unfortunately, all of this means we're pretty much just as in-the-dark as we were about the subject when I was reporting on cell phones and radiation a few years back. And frustratingly, as I noted before, we probably won't know more for at least a few years:

Finding subjects who have brain tumors and who have used their cell phones for more than 10 years is difficult, especially considering that the tumors typically take 10 to 20 years to develop. What's more, people are notoriously bad at remembering how much they've used their phones and which ear they hold their cell phone up to—especially if they're looking around for something to blame a brain tumor on. 

In the meantime, does that mean that you're all clear to sleep with your cell phone next to you on your pillow? Of course not; it just means that the researchers haven't yet proven anything one way or the other. As a precaution, the WHO panel suggests you'd do well to limit talking time, especially for kids.

Hip, hip, hooray! As of last week, student athletes in New York will no longer have to worry about getting a mouthful of toxic chemicals when they dive for the ball: The state became the second to ban pesticides on school playing fields and playgrounds, following Connecticut, which has had a similar law since 2007. A ban has also been proposed in New Jersey.

The move would seem like a no-brainer, considering the ever-growing pile of evidence that pesticides are harmful to kids. Childhood exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a long list of conditions, including asthma, ADHD, and even cancer. But not everyone thinks school spray bans are a good idea. Some have argued that pesticides are essential tools for preventing tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, allergies to bee stings, and other creepy-crawly threats. Here's a spokeswoman for the pesticide industry group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) in the Hartford Advocate on Connecticut's school pesticide ban:

"It's quite an over-reach," says RISE spokeswoman Karen Reardon. She says the failure to use pesticides on school fields in Connecticut, for example, could lead to "the spread of Lyme disease" by allowing deer ticks to multiply. There can be instances when "pest pressure needs to be knocked down immediately," Reardon says, adding the best way to do that is with the "judicious use" of pesticides.

Environmental health advocates dismiss the tick argument as a pesticide-industry scare tactic. "Whether it's public health crises or those deadly weeds, there's always some emergency that industry touts as the reason to spray pesticides on school grounds," says Paul Towers, state director of the California watchdog group Pesticide Watch. Still, the idea of playing fast and loose with Lyme disease at schools is a bit unsettling. So is there any merit to RISE's claims?

Not really, says Mana Mann, a pediatrician with the Mt. Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center. "There is no evidence supporting the use of pesticides in the school environment to affect the incidence of Lyme disease." Furthermore, most laws that ban or limit chemical use at schools make exceptions for public health issues. Both New York's and Connecticut's bans fall into this category. "We're not asking anyone to stop controlling ticks," says Paul Tukey, the founder of the environmental health advocacy group Safe Lawns. "We're trying to get people to stop using pesticides to kill dandelions."

Not as easy as it sounds, considering that the $36 billion pesticide industry has devoted significant resources to convincing the public that its wares are keeping them safe. The RISE website Debug the Myths is entirely devoted to defending the reputation of much-maligned pesticides. "We know you can handle the truth," reads one section of the site. "Pesticides help keep our families healthy and our homes happy." This summer, Debug the Myths will go on tour, offering kid-oriented activities like a "What Pest Are You?" quiz. Adults can "write a letter to tell your local government officials about the benefits of the pesticide and fertilizer products you use at home and about those used in your community."

All the PR and lobbying efforts seem to be paying off. In California the Healthy Schools Act of 2011 would have required school districts to adopt stricter rules around pesticide applications. It was weakened in an amendment this month, after lobby groups including RISE and the Western Plant Health Association fought against it. The first version of the bill forbid, for example, the use of known carcinogens and blanket spraying on school grounds; the amended version included neither of these rules. When I spoke to Dominic DiMare, a lobbyist for the Pest Control Operators of California, he said he believed that industry groups played a major role in the amendment.

Earlier this year in Connecticut, environmental groups fought for a bill that would give individual cities and towns more autonomy in limiting pesticide use in lawns and public spaces. But in March, State Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford) announced that the state senate's Environment Committee had decided not to introduce any new pesticide bills in 2011. Roy told a CT News Junkie that he "made the agreement with the lead pesticide lobbyist to take a year off on pesticides because passage of the law banning pesticides on school grounds was so contentious."

Politically expedient though such deals may be, they're not the best move for kids' health. "Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides because they are still growing and developing," says Mann, the Mt. Sinai pediatrician. "Because research studies have shown a wide range of negative health effects for children from their exposure to pesticides, pesticide use [at schools] should be avoided as much as possible."

Laws about pesticide use at schools vary widely. Many states use some form of integrated pest management, which incorporates non-chemical control methods as well as traditional pesticides, though there's not a lot of consistency in exactly how this is interpreted. If you're curious about policies in your state, check out Beyond Pesticides' guide (PDF).

Over at NRDC's Switchboard blog, my friend Max Baumhefner has a pretty cool little electric-car-related post comparing oil prices to electricity prices over time. The whole thing is worth reading; there's a lot of great detail and chart renderings to geek out on if that's your thang. But the basic point is that while oil prices jump up and down in accordance with geopolitical events, electricity prices remain relatively stable.

Check out this chart by the Energy Information Administration (EIA):

Now look at this chart about electricity prices over the same time period:

You can see that electricity doesn't correlate nearly as much with the news, but it's a little hard to compare since the Y-axes are so different. Here's how Max sums it up:

Electricity is made from a diverse supply of largely domestic fuels, and its price is closely regulated by public utilities commissions.  Accordingly, the price of electricity doesn’t care if workers strike in Venezuela or if rebel forces make progress in Libya.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the price of oil spiked, and the price of electricity continued a gradual twenty-year decline. While the price of oil increased almost tenfold following the Asian economic crisis in 1997 until its peak in 2008, the price of electricity increased about 12%. 

In short, the price of oil reads the morning’s headlines and freaks out, while the price of electricity is blissfully ignorant and kinda boring. Which would you rather depend on to fuel your car?

Or as another friend who has a way with celebrity analogies put it, oil prices are like Charlie Sheen to electricity's Dick Clark. Eh? 

How KFC and the Tea Party Kill Tigers

The World Wildlife Fund captured two tigers on camera deep in the forest of central Sumatra, which is threatened by loggers.

Over at Yale E360, you can watch a great World Wildlife Fund video showing the areas of the Sumatran rainforest slated to be logged in the near future. Sumatra is home to a pretty astounding array of wildlife, including rhinos, orangutans and tigers. Last week, WWF released rare footage of 12 critically endangered tigers in the area, including a mom and two cubs. Only about 400 Sumatran tigers are left in the world. 

The video mentions one particular company responsible for much of the Indonesian rainforest destruction: Asia Pulp & Paper, a major subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, an Indonesian mega-conglommerate known for its cozy relationship with the Suharto family. APP's realm of influence is truly vast: The 5 million tons of paper it produces annually are sold in 65 countries on six continents.

APP has long been on environmentalists' radar; it has been accused of illegal logging in Cambodia and Indonesia, and a 2008 investigation by the rainforest advocacy group Eyes on the Forest suggested that companies connected to APP had illegally built a road through a part of Sumatra that was one of the world's biggest carbon stores.

And yet APP still has a firm hold on the US paper market. According to Greenpeace, KFC and several other fast-food chains owned by Yum Brands are among its major US buyers. And it enjoys political support, too: In March, the New York Times reported that the Tea Party-affiliated group Institute for Liberty has been lobbying to protect APP's right to sell paper products to the US without having to pay tarrifs. (The Insitute for Liberty is known for its massive pro-business astroturfing efforts;it has defended Monsanto's right to sell genetically modified alfalfa, and MoJo's Stephanie Mencimer recently reported on its campaign against net neutrality.)

APP has tried to spiff up its environmental rep with a major PR push; its website claims that it is "committed to protecting biological diversity, particularly with regards to native plant species, Sumatran tigers, elephants, orangutans, birds and other animals." The site also brags that APP's carbon footprint is "remarkably close to neutral." But last year, the Rainforest Action Network revealed that APP's calculations of its footprint are sorely lacking, since they don't take into consideration the carbon-storing peatlands that APP has destroyed.

Despite the greenwashing, APP's lousy environmental track record finally seems to be catching up with it; several American chains, including Staples, Office Depot, and Target, recently ended their contracts with the paper giant. Will others follow suit before it's too late for the tigers?

Front page image: Brian Scott/Flickr

Bikers Weather Pollution Better Than Drivers

On the heels of Bike-to-Work Day comes this excellent little bit of news: Bike commuters are less affected by air pollution than car and bus commuters, according to a new study published in the journal Epidemiology. The researchers found that even though bikers were exposed to more air pollution than vehicle passengers, their airways were less inflamed after the commute:

The Netherlands' researchers measured three factors related to breathing ability – lung function, airway resistance and airway inflammation – among healthy, 18- to 56-year-old volunteers before and after they commuted for two hours by bus, car or bicycle. These measures were related to estimates of two sizes of particles (PM2.5 and PM10), the number of particles in the air and soot the commuters inhaled.

[...]

Car and bus commuters experienced more inflammation based on the amount of particles present and soot concentrations. While bicycle commuting exposed participants to higher levels of pollution, health effects were not changed among the bikers.

No word on why this is the case, but I'm tempted to chalk it up to the superior lung capacity of bikers.

 

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