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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Step Right Up for the Pesticide Road Show!

Read about the pesticide industry's opposition to bans on toxic chemicals on playgrounds and school athletic fields here.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a pesticide road show. Yup, you heard me right: It's a traveling circus of sorts, but instead of sword swallowers and tightrope walkers, the stars of this show are pest-management products. Called Debug the Myths, the tour is sponsored by the lobby group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), which aims to teach people to stop worrying and learn to love pesticides.

I had read about the East Coast leg of the road trip, so you can imagine my delight when I heard that the show was coming to an Orchard Supply Hardware (known 'round these parts as OSH) in Modesto, California. Google Maps said the drive from my house would take an hour and a half, but I needed to run some chicken errands at a feed store out there, anyway. After a pleasant drive (soundtrack by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, courtesy of the local country station) I pulled into the OSH parking lot around noon. The Debug the Myths tent wasn't hard to spot:

I made my way over. When I arrived, I was greeted by:

A very friendly giant tick! Here, you can see her chatting up an OSH customer. The tick directed me toward the rest of the display, where I met some other Debug the Myths staffers, including two entomologists from UC-Berkeley's Environmental Science Policy and Management program, a representative from Target, and a spokeswoman for RISE.

An Econundrums reader recently asked a good question about how best to charge laptop and smart phone batteries:

Is it better for the battery to charge laptops and phones fully and then run them down all the way, or to charge them a little bit every day? And which way uses less energy?

The answer is complicated, since it depends on the particular product in question, explains Suzanne Foster Porter of Ecos, a Colorado-based consulting company that works on energy efficiency of battery chargers, in everything from MP3 players to forklifts. While some older battery chargers continue to draw power from the grid even when the battery is fully charged, more modern chargers are smarter: They basically turn off once the device is done charging. "But it's difficult to tell which kind you have, since manufacturers aren't required to tell consumers," says Porter. 

That could change soon: Porter says Energy Star plans to develop a new label for charger efficiency. (There's already this one, but it only applies to a narrow range of products.) Until then, you can follow these general guidelines:

When plugged into a charger, products that use nickel-cadmium and nickel-metal hydride batteries often draw power even when they're fully charged. Electric razors, power tools, and some small appliances commonly use this kind of battery. You should "only charge these items right before you're going to use them since they use quite a bit of energy when they're plugged in," says Porter.

But modern lithium-ion batteries, the kind in most laptops and cell phones, are generally very good at knowing when a product is fully charged. Porter says that's because there's a safety issue: They could actually explode (remember that?) if they become overcharged. (That said, you should unplug your charger from the wall when you're not using it. Most models still use energy even when they're not charging anything, though that may change soon.)

The charge-every-day method is also better for the battery than running it down and doing a "deep charge" every once in a while, says Isidor Buchmann, CEO of Cadex, a company in British Columbia that manufactures and analyzes battery chargers. Daily charging puts less stress on the battery and thus makes it last longer. A few other tips from Buchmann for prolonging the life of lithium-ion batteries: Keep charged devices in rooms that don't get hotter than 86 degrees Fahrenheit, since heat can damage the batteries, especially when they're fully charged. For that reason, avoid placing devices on pillows and other surfaces that will restrict air flow during charging. Also try not to leave devices in an empty-battery state for too long; this could shorten the battery life.

More about lithium-ion battery chemistry and more handy tips here

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to Get all your green questions answered by visiting Econundrums on Facebook here.

Does Barbie Hate Orangutans?

Greenpeace says Ken doesn't date girls who live in packaging from the rainforest.

A few weeks ago, Mattel announced that Barbie wants a green dream house. Perhaps it's because she's spent so much time in environmentally deplorable digs.

According to a Greenpeace investigation, Barbie dolls are among the many toys on the market whose packaging contains fibers that originated in the ecologically fragile (and mightily abused) Indonesian rainforest, which is home to a vast array of creatures including tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. Greenpeace sent samples of Barbie packaging to IPS Testing, a paper analysis lab, which confirmed that the sample contained fibers of mixed tropical hardwood. According to Greenpeace, this particular wood blend is a telltale sign that the paper originated in Indonesia, since that's the only place that produces it in large volumes. Greenpeace also dug up several certificates (PDF) that show that Mattel has purchased paper from a middleman for Asia Pulp & Paper, a gargantuan paper supply company whose many misdeeds in Indonesia have prompted American retail chains (including Staples, Office Depot, and Target) to quit buying from APP for good. I wrote about APP's weird ties with the tea party here.

Although Mattel hasn't yet responded to Greenpeace's accusations, there's been some back and forth between the two groups. In March, Greenpeace wrote to Mattel, asking the company about its paper sourcing policies. Two months later, Mattel responded:

We specify that our catalogs are printed on paper containing at least 10 percent post‐consumer waste, and we encourage consumers to share and recycle them. For other printed materials, we generally work with paper suppliers and the printers that can make recommendations on latest FSC‐approved paper stocks that meet the needs of our specific project. In addition, we have reduced our use of paper through socializing conservation measures with our employees and reducing the size and number of corporate reports we print by moving to digital solutions.

So yeah, the elephant in the living room is, uh, the packaging.

More bad news: Even if you've banished Barbie from your house, it's likely at least a few of your toys are made by companies on Greenpeace's list of rainforest-unfriendly manufacturers: Some Disney, Hasbro, and LEGO packages were all found to contain Indonesian fibers. LEGOs! And here I thought they could do no wrong!


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.

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