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.

Did 9/11 Cause More Male Miscarriages?

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

More male fetuses than female were miscarried in the year after 9/11, a new UC Irvine study finds. According to a lead researcher, here's why:

In this case, women across the country were undergoing a process of "communal bereavement" -- empathizing with others, even if they hadn't experienced a direct loss during 9/11.

"It's a situation where witnessing harm, even if you don't actually suffer yourself, can actually induce harm," Bruckner said.

Female fetuses are hardier than males, because women have adapted to produce what Bruckner describes as "the alpha male." In times of prosperity and security, male fetuses are more likely to be brought to term, because there's a greater chance that they'll be healthy and robust. During periods of scarcity, however, male miscarriages are much more common.

"A woman's body faces a decision -- evolutionary, not cognitive -- of whether to carry her male baby to term, or abort the fetus," Bruckner said. "If you're pregnant in a time of low resources, there's less impetus for your body to bear that child."

So: Women were emotionally drained by 9/11, so somehow their bodies knew it'd be harder to raise an "alpha male" in such a stressful environment. Therefore, their wombs rejected the male fetuses.

I'm skeptical. For starters, how could you ever prove such a theory? For a while now another MoJo editor and I have been collecting examples of folks taking the general principle of natural selection and really just running with it, using it to explain all sorts of things. For example: Why do men prefer blondes? "Typically, young girls with light blond hair become women with brown hair. Thus, men who prefer to mate with blond women are unconsciously attempting to mate with younger women."  Why do women like the color pink? "Being drawn to men with rosy, rather than pale, complexions may also have helped them bear healthy children."

These are fun to think about, since the have a sort of a creation-myth feel about them. That's probably because we've evolved to wonder about human nature, don't you think? But seriously, this isn't science, it's speculation. And in the wrong hands, it could actually be used to undermine real evolutionary science. That could be dangerous.


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"Green" Hand Sanitizer?

| Tue May 25, 2010 2:23 PM EDT

Triple Pundit reports that Purell is now offering an eco-certified hand sanitizer:

...the watery gel everyone from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama uses to keep their hands “99.9%” germ-free now is now available in a biodegradable formula made from 100 percent renewable plant-based ethanol in a completely recyclable PET plastic container. Whew!

The whole package has been certified by Ecologo, which confirms that the product meets its recently released “Instant Hand Antiseptic Products standard.” Accord to Joe Kanfer, CEO of GOJO, maker of Purell, it is the world’s first hand sanitizer to received certification from an independent eco-labeling program.

The new product’s light-weight packaging uses 30 percent less material, saving 250 tons of plastic a year.

Purell certainly deserves props for producing a biodegradable product and greening its packaging. But as Mother Jones reported in "Germ Warfare," our national obsession with cleanliness has reached a fever pitch, and some scientists think being too clean has actually made us sicker. Proponents of the "hygiene hypothesis" blame allergies and other autoimmune diseases on a lack of certain germs: In the developing world, where gut parasites are much more common, autoimmune disorders are much less common.

As the Boston Globe reports, some doctors are even experimenting with infecting allergic people with hook worms in hopes of giving their immune systems something to do besides give them allergy attacks. Infecting yourself with a parasite might seem creepier than popping a Benadryl, but the process actually sounds fairly painless. If it works? Imagine the possibilities: Less sneezing=fewer allergy drugs=fewer antihistamines in our waterways, etc. 

As Triple Pundit's BC Upham points out, Purell isn't to blame for antibiotic-resistant superbugs—it's not made with antimicrobial agents, just alcohol. But it's still an awfully effective germ killer. So what do you think, Blue Marble readers? Should Purell be allowed to call a hand sanitizer green?

Michael Pollan's Nonfiction Picks

| Mon May 24, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

For a special section in our May/June issue, we asked some of our favorite writers about their favorite nonfiction books. Here are In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan's answers:

Mother Jones: Are there any under-the-radar books about nutrition and food politics you'd recommend to fans of your work?

Michael Pollan: There have been a handful of books on food politics that I consider landmarks: Food Politics by Marion Nestle; Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation (though hardly under the radar); Joan Gussow's This Organic Life, the first and best book on eating locally; Raj Patel's Stuffed and Starved takes the conversation to the global level; as does The End of Food by Paul Roberts. There's a strong shelf that will get anybody up to speed. On nutrition, besides Nestle's What to Eat, be sure to read Gary Taube's Good Calories, Bad Calories, which effectively demolishes the lipid hypothesis that has ruled the whole food conversation for 40 years.

MJ: Which nonfiction book do you foist upon all of your friends and relatives? Why?

MP: Lately I'm pushing them to read Cornered by Barry C. Lynn, a really original book on how monopolization is eroding our political culture.  

MJ: Which nonfiction book have you reread the most times? What's so good about it?

MP: I find I return to Wendell Berry's essays over and over, which can be read on so many levels. Thoreau's Walden continues to nourish and aggravate; The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, and the essays of George Orwell all get an annual workout.

MJ: Is there a nonfiction book that someone recommended to you when were a kid that has left a lasting impression? Who recommended it, and why was it so special?

MP: My parents gave me George Plimpton's Paper Lion when I was 13 or 14, and I think in retrospect it's shaped my journalism in many ways—but especially the humor he squeezes out of participation. 

Could a Common Sunscreen Ingredient Speed Cancer Development?

| Mon May 24, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

I could really use some better sunscreen. Red-headed, freckled, and ridiculously pale (think: a few shades lighter than your average slice of Wonder Bread), I burn at the slightest suggestion of a sunny day, even though I religiously slather on the SPF one-bazillion goop. Last year, I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about how sunscreen manufacturers' claims (All day protection! Sweat proof! SPF through the roof!) rarely measure up to the products' performance. So when I heard that the Environmental Working Group was releasing its 2010 list of best and worst sunscreens, I had hope: Would this be the year sunscreen manufacturers finally figured out how to save me from turning into a Twizzler after 10 minutes of yard work?

You'd think so, since according to the new report, 1 in 6 sunscreens is now labeled with an SPF of above 50, compared to 1 in 8 last year. Sounds like good news, since higher SPF means more protection, right? Not really, says EWG senior analyst Sean Gray. The difference between an SPF 50 product and and SPF 110 product is minuscule. Gray believes the sky-high SPF labels can actually be dangerous. "We have studies that show that people who use the higher SPF products don't reapply it," says Gray. "So they end up with more UV exposure overall." (Mother Jones reported on this phenomenon back in the day.)

Another scary new finding: There is preliminary evidence from a recent FDA animal study that a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, present in about 40 percent of sunscreens, may accelerate the development of skin cancer. Researchers applied sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate to one group of hairless mice and sunscreens without the additive to another group. When exposed to UV radiation, the retinyl palmitate group developed lesions and tumors significantly faster than than the non-retinyl palmitate group. What's frightening is that people see "vitamin" and "think it's good for them," says Gray.

So which sunscreens are best? EWG says so-called "mineral blockers," which generally use nanoparticles of zinc or titanium oxide to block UV light, are safer than "chemical blockers," since they protect against both UVA and UVB rays (UVB cause burns, but UVA rays have been linked to skin cancer) and don't become unstable in sunlight. Are nanoparticles completely safe? "All the research we’ve looked at suggests they don't penetrate the skin, but there is still debate about that," says Gray. If you do choose a chemical blocker, choose one with avobenzone, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Stay away from oxybenzone, which only filters out UVB light, and could also disrupt hormonal function.

The bright side: The FDA expects to debut its long-awaited new sunscreen labeling system—which will require manufacturers to include information about both UVA and UVB protection and ban claims of SPFs higher than 50—this coming October.

Here's a list of EWG's best and worst sunscreens of 2010:

Thu Jun. 26, 2014 6:42 PM EDT
Fri Apr. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Nov. 11, 2013 7:00 AM EST
Mon Sep. 16, 2013 2:28 PM EDT
Mon Jul. 15, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Mon May. 13, 2013 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EST
Fri Sep. 21, 2012 2:02 PM EDT
Tue Sep. 18, 2012 4:37 PM EDT
Fri Aug. 31, 2012 11:12 AM EDT
Thu Aug. 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Mon Aug. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Thu Aug. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Aug. 10, 2012 2:43 PM EDT
Tue Aug. 7, 2012 12:49 PM EDT
Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 3:43 PM EDT
Wed May. 16, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Tue May. 15, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri May. 11, 2012 3:08 PM EDT
Mon Apr. 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Fri Mar. 16, 2012 2:59 PM EDT
Mon Feb. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Fri Jan. 27, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Fri Jan. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Sun Jan. 1, 2012 7:00 AM EST
Wed Dec. 28, 2011 10:21 AM EST
Tue Dec. 27, 2011 12:26 PM EST
Wed Dec. 14, 2011 7:00 AM EST