Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, August 18

Tuesday's list of environment, science, and health stories from our other blogs and around the web:

Lipstick on a junta: Does Fiji Water prop up a dictatorship? We let the experts duke it out.

PETA, please: The animal activist group's latest antic is an embarrassing fat-bashing billboard. Oy.

Bye bye, public option; hello co-ops: James Ridgeway on why health care co-ops are a cop-out.

No crystal ball necessary: Should democrats have foreseen the outcry over advance care counseling? Kevin Drum says it wouldn't have mattered even if they had, since the lunatic fringe would have found something to obsess over no matter what.

Of pressure and pollen: Can stress make your allergies worse?

Cigna spills: The former head of corporate communications at one of the largest health insurance companies in America tells all.

Critical mass: When it comes to bikes, there's safety in numbers.

To keep up with environment, health, and science news from Mother Jones and beyond on Twitter, follow @MoJoBlueMarble.

Cute Animal in Danger: Dugong

Despite what a recent PETA ad would have you believe, some vegetarians are fat. Take, for example, the herbiverous and tubby Dugong. Dugongs have long been hunted for their fat, meat, and oil and they're easy targets: they swim slowly through shallow waters munching on seagrass like a cow on pasture. In fact, they're often called seacows. Though dugongs are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act, some are still killed by motorboat collisions and poachers.

There are about 100,000 dugongs left, the majority in Australian waters. Like their relative the elephant, dugongs can grow huge: up to 11 feet in length and 2,000 pounds in weight. The shy animals can only stay underwater for about 6 minutes, and sometimes "stand" on their tail flukes to push their heads to the surface, holding their front flippers in front of them like arms. This activity, combined with the dugong's distinctive head and body shape, not to mention its "conspicuous" nipples, is thought to have inspired lovelorn sailors' tales of mermaids and sirens. Accordingly, dugongs (along with manatees) belong to the order Sirenia

The dugong's long lifespan (70 years) and a slow reproduction rate (one calf every 3 to 7 years) makes it less able to adapt to environmental changes than smaller, more fertile animals like squid or jellyfish. However, unlike some other animals, the dugong has no set breeding period and can mate year round. Although unusual now, there used to be "herds" of hundreds of dugongs, who would segregate cream-colored young in a "nursery" while blue-grey adults foraged for food. Now, most dugong groups sighted have only 6 or so members. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) dugongs are rarely found in captivity, but you can "adopt" your own dugong via the World Wildlife Fund here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

AL ASAD, Iraq (Aug. 6, 2009) Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV) the Honorable Ray Mabus addresses Sailors and Marines during a tour of Al Asad Air Base. Mabus thanked them for their dedicated service and their significant role in preserving security and stability in the region. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien/Released.)

Need To Read, August 18, 2009

Some essential reading you may have missed:

The public option is dead. Who cares?

Obama delivers tough words on defense spending to an audience of veterans.

The DOJ belatedly softens its harsh stance against gay marriage.

Both David Corn and Newt Gingrich think Obama could learn a thing or two from Ronald Reagan. Although for somewhat different reasons.

North Korea reopens border with South Korea.

At least someone's paying attention: the Times-Herald of California's Solano and Napa Counties condemns Obama's use of signing statements.

More details emerge on the American Petroleum Institute's anti-cap and trade astroturf ops.

MoJo = contraband? Virgina prisons bans our issue on the failure of the drug war.

David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is on twitter, and so are my colleagues Daniel Schulman, Nick Baumann, and our editor, Clara Jeffery. You can follow me here. (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

The New Pentagon

In the Washington Post today, Rajiv Chandrasekaran tells us why Gen. David McKiernan was so abruptly fired a few months ago as the top commander in Afghanistan:

Gates and Mullen had been having doubts about McKiernan since the beginning of the year. They regarded him as too languid, too old-school and too removed from Washington. He lacked the charisma and political savvy that Gen. David H. Petraeus brought to the Iraq war....He did not fawn over visiting lawmakers like Petraeus did in Iraq.

...."Blame General Petraeus," a senior Defense Department official said. "He redefined during his tour in Iraq what it means to be a commanding general. He broke the mold. The traditional responsibilities were not enough anymore. You had to be adroit at international politics. You had to be a skilled diplomat. You had to be savvy with the press, and you had to be a really sophisticated leader of a large organization. When you judge McKiernan by Petraeus's standards, he looked old-school by comparison."

There's more to the story than just this, and given the importance of the Afghanistan campaign it was hardly unreasonable for Gates and Mullen to install a new commander they thought was better suited to the job — even if this was based primarily on personal chemistry and even if it involved some level of unfairness to an existing commander who hadn't done anything especially wrong.  That's just the way it goes with top level executive positions sometimes.  What's more, there's evidence in Chandrasekaran's piece that quite a few people in the Pentagon were objectively unimpressed with some of McKiernan's planning, though he's pretty vague about just why that was.

Still, even with all that said, it's a little disturbing that Gates and Mullen apparently placed such a strong emphasis on "charisma and political savvy."  That's only a thin line away from "boot licking empty suit," after all, and it wasn't so very long ago that we were complaining that the Army promoted too many politically savvy generals and too few real warriors.  That's probably not what happened here — McKiernan's replacement, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, has a good reputation — but there's still a slight whiff to the whole thing.  And there's also this:

Before McChrystal left Washington, Gates asked him to deliver an assessment of the war in 60 days. Instead of summoning a team of military strategists to Kabul, McChrystal invited Washington think-tank experts from across the ideological spectrum.

....There were few revolutionary ideas in the document, but McChrystal may have received something far more important through the process: allies in the U.S. capital, on the political left and right, to talk about the need for more troops in Afghanistan — in advance of his assessment to Gates, which will probably be submitted this month.

As Spencer Ackerman points out, this is indeed politically savvy.  Whether it was the right thing to do is another question entirely.

Brazil to Obama: Watch It

Sometime in the next ten days, President Obama can expect a call from Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Lula wants to invite Obama to a meeting of the Union of the South American Nations (Unasur) meeting to discuss the increasing American presence in Colombia, now that the South American country has allowed US military forces to use Colombian air bases to track down rebels and drug dealers. A conversation about the topic should take place before the next Unsaur meeting, scheduled for August 28th in Bariloche, Argentina.

During the last meeting of Unasur leaders, last week, in Quito, Ecuador, the Brazilian president said he was “uneasy” with American troops going to Colombia and proposed the meeting with Obama. The main reason for his concern, he said, is that South America should be able to solve its own problems without outside help, especially since the Narcotraffic Combat Council was just created by Unasur to fight drug traffic in South America without international interference. “The Council can answer many things that Colombians think only Americans can answer,” Lula said.

But during a press conference, Lula expressed a concern that must cross the mind of every leader whose neighbors are about to host American troops: Are they really going to stay where they’re supposed to? Lula emphasized that it should be made “explicit” that American troops will act only within Colombian territory. Translation: Colombian president Alvaro Uribe and Obama can sign whatever they want, as long as we don’t have American soldiers crossing into the Brazilian Amazon.

Guest contributor Gabriela Lessa is a journalist and blogger spending the summer in her native Brazil. Watch for her dispatches on motherjones.com.

EPA Pesticide Tests Seriously Shortsighted

Hard to believe but the Environmental Protection Agency commonly uses 4-day tests to set safe levels of pesticide exposure for humans and animals. New research suggests this timescale is way too short and doesn't begin to account for long-term effects.

The new data, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, describe how the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan—a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture (check out the CDC's outdated description)—exhibits a "lag effect" after direct contact has ended.

The researchers exposed nine species of frog and toad tadpoles to endosulfan levels already occurring in the wild for the EPA's required 4-day period. After 4 days the amphibians were transferred to clean water for an additional 4 days.

Although endosulfan was ultimately toxic to all species, three species of tadpole showed no significant sensitivity to the chemical until after they were transferred to fresh water. Within 4 days of being moved, up to 97 percent of leopard frog tadpoles perished along with up to 50 percent of spring peeper and American toad tadpoles.

Tadpoles and other amphibians are famously sensitive to pollutants and considered environmental indicator species. The authors suggest that if endosulfan does not kill the world's most susceptible species in 4 days, then the 4-day test period is inadequate to gauge the long-term effects for larger, less-sensitive species—like us.

Co-author Rick Relyea said: "For most pesticides, we assume that animals will die during the period of exposure, but we do not expect substantial death after the exposure has ended. Even if EPA regulations required testing on amphibians, our research demonstrates that the standard 4-day toxicity test would have dramatically underestimated the lethal impact of endosulfan on even this notably sensitive species."

A second paper by some of the same authors in the same journal expands on Relyea's earlier findings that the popular weed-killer Roundup® is "extremely lethal" to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment. The latest report on Roundup® is available on Pitt's website (pdf).

Last year Relyea reported that the world's 10 most popular pesticides combine to create "cocktails of contaminants" that can destroy amphibian populations—even if the concentration of each individual chemical is within levels considered safe to humans and animals. I reported on this at TBM at the time. The cocktail killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. Endosulfan alone killed 84 percent.

A month earlier, Relyea published a paper in Ecological Applications reporting that gradual amounts of malathion (the most popular insecticide in the US)—too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles—nevertheless sparked a biological chain reaction that deprived the amphibians of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment would have died in nature.

In other words, pesticides really really suck. How much research more does the EPA need to embrace 21st-century science?
 

The Political Calculus of Health Care Reform

What's the riskier political move for Obama: pushing for an ambitious health care overhaul, even if this entails a drawn out process that shifts his attention from other pressing issues (i.e., the economy, climate change)? Or trying to get a bill—any bill—passed quickly?

Former Clinton advisor William Galston has suggested the president's best bet is the latter. In a blog item on Friday, he encouraged Obama to take “what he can get on health care” so he can “focus more on the economy over the next three years, and persuade average Americans that the economy is as central to his concerns as is it to theirs.” There may be political consequences if he doesn't, Galston warned:

A jobless recovery helped undermine George H. W. Bush's reelection prospects in 1992. Its continuation weakened support for Bill Clinton's economic program and contributed to the Democratic Party's rout in 1994.

You could say we have a loyal following behind bars. A captive audience, yes, but also one on the hunt for investigative stories of justice and fairness, and the pursuit of as much. Also, we pay close attention to what happens in prisons; we've covered the prison industrial complex quite extensively. But we're not publishing secret jailbreak cypher code or anything, promise. Which apparently we need to say out loud:

Last year when we released our package on the coming prison meltdown we got a letter from a reader at the Pickaway Correctional Center in Ohio saying the issue was being withheld. Specifically, the prison cited our written examples of prison slang with explanation” but, strangely enough, neither our list of banned books, nor our tips for an easier prison stay.

Then, today, we get this letter saying that the Virginia Department of Corrections is prohibiting our current issue, on the failures of the drug war, from making it to prisoners because of our coverage of the drug war in Mexico. The story they cite is a really amazing tale of one reporter who braves the police and the cartels to tell the truth about Mexico's violence, guns, and drugs; but there aren't any tips on how to get out of jail therein. The pages the DOC letter references also include this illuminating map of drug cartel hotspots in the United States. Virginia does have a few of the 259 locales, but will inmates really be able to glean enough intel that the magazine "could be detrimental to the security and good order of the institution and rehabilitation of offenders"?

Lame.


What Was Tom Daschle Doing On Meet The Press?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a growing trend among Washington's leading influence peddlers as they make the adjustment to the more ethics-conscious Obama era: they're avoiding the taint of lobbying (not to mention the disclosure requirements) by calling themselves strategists instead of lobbyists. One such operator is Tom Daschle, who works at lobbying firm Alston & Bird as a "special policy adviser." At the time, I noted that an additional perk of side-stepping the lobbyist moniker was that media outlets like Newsweek still seek out Daschle's insight on health care without mentioning that he has clients with a stake in the legislative battle.

But Daschle's previous media mentions are nothing compared to his appearance on Meet the Press this weekend, as Michael Scherer of Time points out. On one side was fierce, uncompromising reform foe Sen. Tom Coburn, who has said that Obama's plan would "endanger the U.S. economy, but millions of patients as well." And on the other side ...a hired gun for insurance behemoth UnitedHealth, which, as BusinessWeek has discovered, is leading the charge to defeat the public option, the centerpiece of liberal goals for reform:  

Daschle personally advocates a government-run competitor to private insurers. But he sells his expertise to UnitedHealth, which opposes any such public insurance plan. Among the services Daschle offers are tips on the personalities and policy proclivities of members of Congress he has known for decades... He says he leaves direct contacts with members of Congress to others at his firm.   

Meet the Press didn't mention Daschle's relationship with UnitedHealth at all. This was really the best advocate for reform that the show could come up with?