Blogs

Scientists Say Supposedly Miraculous Ingredients in Weed Killers Don't Actually Work

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Before pesticides go from the laboratory to the farm field, they have to first be vetted by the Environmental Protection Agency. But they're commonly mixed—sometimes by the pesticide manufacturers, sometimes by the farmers themselves—with substances called adjuvants that boost their effectiveness (to spread more evenly on a plant's leaf in the case of insecticides, or to penetrate a plant's outer layer, allowing herbicides to effectively kill weeds). Despite their ubiquity, adjuvants aren't vetted by the EPA at all; they're considered "inert" ingredients.

Despite their ubiquity, adjuvants aren't vetted by the EPA at all; they're considered "inert" ingredients.

I first wrote about them last year, when adjuvants mixed with fungicides came under suspicion of triggering a large bee die-off during California's almond bloom. Recently, an eye-popping article by Purdue weed scientists in the trade journal Ag Professional brought them to my attention again. The piece illustrates the unregulated, Wild West nature of these additives.

In the article, the authors note that two companies are hotly promoting adjuvant products as a kind of miracle cure for the ever-increasing scourge of herbicide-resistant weeds. That's a bold claim, given that resistant weeds now plague more than 60 million acres of farmland.

Odder still, both companies attribute their products' effectiveness to nanotechnology, a controversial, lightly regulated engineering tool that leverages the fact that when you break common substances into tiny particles, they behave in radically different ways than they do at normal sizes. Nanoparticles are so tiny, their size is measured in nanometers—a billionth of a meter. (A human hair is about 80,000 nanometers thick; nanoparticles typically measure in at less than 100 nanometers.)

An adjuvant called ChemXcel, from a Minnesota-based company called C&R Enterprises, claims to "kill herbicide-resistant weeds" when mixed with common herbicides like glyphosate. It works its magic through "patented, proprietary nano-drivers" that "alter the glyphosate chemistry" by "coating the individual DNA gene-sequencing molecules internally," the company claims.

Then there's NanoRevolution 2.0, marketed by a company called Max Systems. When goosed with a bit of NanoRevolution 2.0, the company states, "the herbicide 'piggybacks' onto the nano particles as they penetrate the leaf structure, carrying the herbicide directly to the root system for a faster enhanced plant absorption of herbicides even on hard-to-control weeds."

Taken aback by the claims and the use of nanotech, I contacted the EPA to see what, if anything, the agency had to say. "While we are not familiar with those particular products, EPA has jurisdiction over substances that meet the definition of pesticides, that is, claims are made for them that they kill, repel, prevent, or otherwise control pests," an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson wrote in an email. "As long as pesticide adjuvant products don’t make pesticidal claims, they are not pesticides and the components of adjuvants are therefore not pesticide ingredients (either active or inert)"—and thus not subject to EPA vetting. Manufacturers aren't even required to list ingredients in adjuvants.

Here, for example, is Max Systems describes the ingredients of NanoRevolution 2.0:

Purdue weed scientist Bill Johnson, who co-authored the Ag Professional piece, says he and his team found that neither of these "nano" products work as advertised. "I began getting calls about reports that these things were being pushed in northern Indiana, and I thought, we need to prove or disprove the claims."

Carbon nanotubes  are one of the most controversial nanoparticles—often compared to asbestos for their ability to lodge into the lungs and cause trouble when they're breathed in.

So he and colleagues tested the products on a weed patch known to be glyphosate resistant, mixing them with glyphosate at levels recommended by the manufactures. The results, published in the trade journal Ag Professional, were underwhelming. On its own, Roundup (Monsanto's version of the glyphosate herbicide) killed just 13.8 percent of weeds. Mixed with ChemXcel, it killed 15 percent of weeds, while the called NanoRevolution 2.0/Roundup mix killed 18 percent of weeds.

Johnson explained that herbicides are always mixed with adjuvants—they're typically needed to help the herbicide penetrate a weed's outer layer. But these particular ones perform no better or worse than conventional adjuvants on the market. But they don't come anywhere near to solving the herbicide-resistance problem, as the companies claim to do.

C.J. Mannenga, co owner of C&R Enterprises, pushed back strongly on Johnson's assessment and challenged his results. "We know our product works," he said. "We've shown it in Georgia, we've shown in Ohio, we've shown it in Missouri, we've shown it in Iowa," he said. When we spoke Tuesday afternoon, Mannenga told me that he was in Osborne, Kansas, about to "meet with a major [agrichemical] distributor" who is "extremely interested in the product ... I'm going to do a demonstration to show them indeed it does work."

While the product's information sheet doesn't list its active ingredients, he readily revealed it to me: "it's just carbon nanotubes."

Carbon nanotubes  are one of the most controversial nanoparticles—often compared to asbestos for their ability to lodge into the lungs and cause trouble when they're breathed in. This 2014 assessment by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell is hardly comforting:

Though ecosystem impacts remain understudied across the CNT [carbon nanotube] lifecycle, evidence suggests that some aquatic organisms may be at risk. While there have been significant advances in the regulation of CNTs in recent years, the lack of attention to the potential carcinogenic effects of these nanomaterials means that current efforts may provide a false sense of security.

Meanwhile, no one employed by NanoRevolution 2.0 maker Max Systems returned my request for comment.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Mark Cuban Has the Dumbest Reason For Supporting Donald Trump

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 3:36 PM EDT

Mark Cuban is a famous billionaire. He owns the Dallas Mavericks. He also appeared on a few episodes of the terrible TV show Entourage. He apparently is quite the fan of Donald Trump's presidential campaign!

Why, you ask? Let him explain:

I don't care what his actual positions are. I don't care if he says the wrong thing. He says what's on his mind. He gives honest answers rather than prepared answers. This is more important than anything any candidate has done in years.

He doesn't care what his actual positions are? You can never know what is in a politician's heart. Literally all you can go on are their actions and deeds.

This is bad reasoning and Mark Cuban should feel bad.

Boehner Planning to Pick Up His Ball and Go Home

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 2:55 PM EDT

Is it just me, or is this trick getting a little old?

Mr. Boehner said the three-month [highway] bill could come up for a House vote on Wednesday. If the bill passes, the House would adjourn for an August recess Wednesday, a day earlier than previously planned, a House GOP aide said. That would leave the Senate to accept one of the two House highway bills or to immediately cut off federal reimbursements to states for transportation projects. The Senate will have a hard time completing its highway bill before Thursday.

I need some scholarly help here. Has it been common in the past for one house to pass a bill and then immediately adjourn, leaving the other house with the option of either passing their bill or shutting down a chunk of government? Or is this something new that modern Republicans have discovered? Historians of Congress, please chime in.

This American Trophy Hunter Allegedly Beheaded Zimbabwe's Most Beloved Lion

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 1:46 PM EDT

Update, July 28, 4:40 p.m.: Walter Palmer released a statement Tuesday afternoon saying he "deeply regrets" killing Cecil the Lion and implied he may have been misled by local guides.

A Minnesota dentist has been identified as the big game hunter who allegedly paid $50,000 to kill Cecil the Lion, one of Zimbabwe's most beloved animals, and a main tourist attraction for the Hwange National Park. Zimbabwean police said Walter Palmer is now being investigated for baiting the 13-year-old lion and then killing the animal with a crossbow.

"They went hunting at night with a spotlight and they spotted Cecil," Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force's Johnny Rodrigues said, according to The Guardian. "They tied a dead animal to their vehicle to lure Cecil out of the park and they scented an area about half a kilometer from the park."

"He never bothered anybody. He was one of the most beautiful animals to look at," he added.

Palmer has been accused of paying local hunters, two of whom have since been arrested, to aid the hunt. According to Zimbabwean officials, Cecil was also skinned and beheaded.

According to Minnesota's Star Tribune, Palmer is preparing to dispute some of the allegations. "Obviously, some things are being misreported," he said, according to the report. Palmer's spokesman told The Guardian that "Walter believes that he might have shot that lion that has been referred to as Cecil," but added that Palmer believed "he had the proper legal permits and he had hired several professional guides."

News of Cecil's killing was swiftly met with outrage on social media. Since being identified as Cecil's alleged killer, Palmer's dental business in Minnesota—which was closed on Tuesday—has been flooded by negative Yelp reviews condemning the allegations.

Yelp

In 2009, Palmer was profiled by the New York Times for a feature on the controversial sport of trophy hunting in which he described his ambition for setting new hunting records. He told the paper he learned to shoot at the age of five. In 2008, Palmer pled guilty to lying to federal officials about where a black bear had been killed.

"We are extremely saddened by the news of Cecil the Lion being illegally killed for sport—not only from an animal welfare perspective, but also for conservation reasons," Jeff Flocken, North American Regional Director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare said in a statement. "African lion populations have declined sharply, dropping nearly 60 percent in the last three decades."

Unlike Dad, Rand Paul Is More Interested in Winning Than in His Principles

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 12:26 PM EDT

Harry Enten tells us that Rand Paul isn't doing too well:

Something is awry at the Rand Paul campaign. The main super PAC supporting his presidential bid raised just $3.1 million in the first half of 2015....On Sunday, a new NBC News/Marist poll showed support for the Kentucky Republican declining to just 4 percent in New Hampshire (compared with 14 percent in February).

....The more worrying problem for Paul is his favorability numbers: They’re also dropping....Over the first five weeks of 2015, Paul’s favorable rating averaged 62 percent among Republicans. Just 14 percent had an unfavorable view of him. Over the five most recent weeks, though, Paul’s favorable rating has averaged 52 percent, with an unfavorable rating of 27 percent. His net favorability rating (favorable minus unfavorable) has dropped by nearly half, from +48 percentage points to +25 percentage points.

Enten's question: "What’s Wrong With Rand Paul’s Campaign?" I think we all know the answer.

Rand's father, Ron Paul, always attracted a fair amount of money and a fair amount of steady support. Not huge amounts, but respectable. The reason was that he was never seriously running for president. He just liked having a stage for his ideas, and since he wasn't trying to win, he could stay as true to his libertarian beliefs as he wanted. He had no need to waffle.

But son Rand has bigger plans. He is seriously running for president, and that means he has to pay attention to the aspects of his political views that just aren't going to play well with important blocs of Republican voters. From the start he was never quite as pure a libertarian as dad, but now he's discovering that he can't even be as pure a libertarian as he's been in the past. So he waffles. He changes his views. He spends time looking at polls. He worries about saying things that will piss off the white evangelicals, or the elderly, or the pragmatic business set. The result is that the folks who admired him for his principled libertarianism are dropping him, while the rest of the Republican Party has yet to warm up to him. After all, he is the guy who said the ongoing chaos in Iraq was the fault of the Republican president who started the Iraq War, not Barack Obama. He's also the guy who wanted to eliminate aid to Israel. And he's the guy who wanted to gut Medicare for everyone—even the folks currently receiving it.

He's kinda sorta changed his mind on all these things, but that makes him look like a sellout to the libertarian crowd and a opportunistic panderer to the tea party crowd. Is it any wonder his poll numbers have tanked?

Fox's Poll Cutoff for the Republican Debate Works Better Than Rachel Maddow Suggested Last Night

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 11:14 AM EDT

Last night Rachel Maddow invited Lee Miringoff, polling director for the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, to discuss the way Fox News is using polls to cut the Republican debate field down to ten candidates. Basically, both Maddow and Miringoff agreed that the whole thing was ridiculous because so many of the candidates on the right-hand tail were so close to each other. Is it really fair for a guy who polls at 3.2 percent to be on stage while a guy with 2.7 percent is kicked to the corner? After all, the margin of error is 3 percentage points. There might not really be any difference between the two.

For some reason, Miringoff didn't push back on this. But he should have. There are two key bits of arithmetic they left out:

  • A typical poll has a 3 percent margin of error. But Fox News is averaging five polls. I don't know precisely what the margin of error is in this case, but it's probably somewhere around 1.5 percent.
  • The margin of error goes down as you go farther out on the tails. If you have two candidates polling 51-49, you can use the standard margin of error. But for candidates polling at 2 or 3 percent? It's roughly half the midpoint margin of error.

Put these two together, and the true margin of error for all the also-rans is something like 0.7 percentage points. This doesn't entirely negate Maddow's point, since the difference between 10th and 11th place might still be less than that. But it does mean the results are a lot less random than she suggested. Assuming Fox does its poll averaging correctly, there's actually a pretty good chance that the top ten really are the top ten.

That said, I wouldn't do the debate this way either. I'd rank all the candidates using the polling average, and then have one debate with all the even-numbered candidates and a second debate with all the odd-numbered candidates. Make it a 3-hour show with 90 minutes given to each group. What's so hard about that?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Congress Just Can't Help But Fall In Love With a Nuclear Physicist

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 10:23 AM EDT

Maybe you could call this the revenge of the nerds?

He’s blinding them with science.

Or intellectually charming them anyway. That’s how Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz seems to be winning fans in the difficult fight to sell the Iran deal on Capitol Hill....Moniz, a nuclear physicist with mad-scientist hair, has already been credited as the administration’s secret weapon in the lengthy negotiations to secure an Iran deal that will prevent the rogue country from securing a nuclear weapon.

....Moniz can certainly lapse into the technical talk with aplomb — and when he gets to talking about the half-lives of isotopes and the detection technologies that will be deployed to survey Iran’s suspected nuclear activities, he can leave his audience in the dust.

But in the two years since Moniz became Energy Secretary, lawmakers have far more often noted and applauded the former professor’s natural ability to translate complex scientific concepts into digestible terms.

It's funny, in a way. Plenty of highly-qualified scientists have testified before Congress, and mostly they get treated as if they were balky university freshmen. But nuclear physics! That still has cachet. Start talking about the half-lives of isotopes and legislators swoon with admiration.

Except for dumbest among them, of course, who can't tell the difference between an MIT-trained physics PhD and Dr. Phil. That, of course, would be Wisconsin's favorite son, Ron Johnson. He just wanted to talk about the danger of electromagnetic pulses. Nice work, Senator.

Soon You Might Actually Be Able to Tell How Much Added Sugar Is in Your Food

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 6:09 AM EDT

When the popular news quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! hosted the country's Surgeon General, Vicek Murthy, last weekend, he was confronted with the question: What's your one weakness? "Sweets," he answered, "I like bread pudding and cheesecake, in particular."

Even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating.

Many of us can identify with the hankering for the occasional piece of cheesecake after dinner. But lots of the added sugar you inhale probably doesn't come in the form of dessert. Rather, Americans get much of their sweetening in the form of beverages—especially soda—and packaged foods that at first glance seem snacky or savory (yep, one serving of hoisin sauce has two whole teaspoons; barbecue sauce one and a half). While the World Health Organization has suggested that adults should get no more than 5 percent of their daily calories from added sweeteners—that's about 6 teaspoons—the average American ingests roughly five times that amount every day.

For decades, researchers and doctors have been sounding the alarm about the negative health risks associated with a diet too rich in added sugars—from obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes, and even heart disease. But as I've written about in the past, even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating: Current food labels don't require added sugar to be listed. There's even indication that food companies have gone to great lengths to keep that information hidden from the public's eyes. The US Department of Agriculture used to list added sugars for popular products in online, but the database was removed in 2012 after companies claimed that added sugar amounts should be considered trade secrets.

So in March, the Food and Drug Administration proposed revising nutrition labels to include added sugars on packaged foods. And on Friday, the agency went even further by proposing to require that packaged food companies must also include a percent daily value of added sugar on the nutrition label. (The daily value would be based on the recommendation that added sugar not exceed 10 percent of total calories, or roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar a day).

The FDA has already received pushback from industry groups about the attempt to make added sugar quantities more transparent; the Corn Refiner's Association questioned the agency's "statutory authority to do so" and complained of a lack of "credible scientific evidence." Meanwhile, Kellogg argued that the proposal "to distinguish added sugars...may confuse consumers." Of course, Kellogg happens to be the world's "second largest producer of cookies, crackers, and savory snacks."

Getting a Home Loan Is Expensive—Especially for Black Women

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 6:09 AM EDT

A recent study in the Journal of Real Estate and Finance Economics finds that black home loan borrowers are charged higher interest rates than their white counterparts—and that black women pay the highest rates of all.  

The three finance professors who authored the study analyzed the mortgages and demographic characteristics of more than 3,500 households during the height of the housing boom—2001, 2004, and 2007—using the Federal Reserve's triennial Survey of Consumer Finances. They found that on average, black borrowers were charged between 0.29 and 0.31 percentage points more in interest than whites, even after controlling for their debt and credit history.

The racial disparity was most pronounced for subprime borrowers who couldn't qualify for low-interest mortgages (the left side of the chart above), with black borrowers paying interest rates that were at least 0.4 percentage points higher than whites in the same group.

Within this group paying the highest interest rates, black women paid the highest rates of all, at an average rate of 7.9 percent. But a statistically significant disparity persisted even among those who paid lower interest rates (the right side of the chart), the study notes. In this group, black borrowers paid interest rates between 0.1 percent and 0.4 percentage points higher than their white counterparts.

Over at Quartz, Melvin Backman explains how these disparities translate into dollars: According to Freddie Mac's mortgage cost calculator, a $200,000, 30-year mortgage would cost a black man about $3,000 more than a white man over the course of the loan. A black woman getting the same loan would pay nearly $9,000 more than a white woman.

 

The study adds to a body of research showing that black mortgage applicants are more likely to be denied credit than white applicants, and are more likely to be charged higher interest rates than whites. It also appears to confirm the racial disparities identified in lawsuits against several of America's top mortgage lenders, including Wells Fargo and Bank of America's Countrywide, which faced hefty payouts in a slew of discrimination lawsuits following the housing-market crash. The lawsuits had even prompted the Obama administration to set up a new unit in the Department of Justice's civil rights division to deal with the caseload.

But the new study also suggests more granular disparities between black and white borrowers. Among black borrowers, for example, younger homeowners without a college education paid some of the highest interest rates. And among those paying higher interest rates, black women, who already face stiff obstacles to economic mobility, were likely to be charged interest rate premiums two to three times that of what black men were charged. While they do not speculate about the causes of these racial and gender gaps between borrowers, the authors conclude, "it is the more financially vulnerable black women who suffer the most."

Donald Trump's Lawyer: Marital Rape Cannot Be Rape

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 10:12 PM EDT
Donald Trump and his ex-wife, Ivana Trump at a 1991 gala in New York City.

So Donald Trump used to be married to Ivana Trump. According to an account resurfaced by Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny at the Daily Beast, the former Mrs. Trump once used the word "rape" during legal proceedings in connection with an event between her and her ex-husband, the current GOP front-runner:

Ivana Trump's assertion of "rape" came in a deposition—part of the early '90s divorce case between the Trumps, and revealed in the 1993 book Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump.

The book, by former Texas Monthly and Newsweek reporter Harry Hurt III, described a harrowing scene.

The Daily Beast has the entire "violent assault." It's indeed harrowing. Trump has denied the allegations.

"It's obviously false," Donald Trump said of the accusation in 1993, according to Newsday. "It's incorrect and done by a guy without much talent… He is a guy that is an unattractive guy who is a vindictive and jealous person."

It’s important to note that this never went to court, Trump never faced any charges, and Ivana Trump herself walked back the allegations before the book in question was published:

"As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a 'rape,' but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense."

This brings us now to Donald Trump's lawyer who The Daily Beast reached out to for comment. He went on a tirade that would make Trump blush:

Michael Cohen, special counsel at The Trump Organization, defended his boss, saying, "You're talking about the front-runner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as private individual who never raped anybody. And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can't rape your spouse."

"It is true," Cohen added. "You cannot rape your spouse. And there's very clear case law."

Realizing perhaps that denying the undeniable criminality of spousal rape was not the best way to kill the story, Cohen switches gears, making things worse:

"You write a story that has Mr. Trump's name in it, with the word 'rape,' and I'm going to mess your life up…for as long as you're on this frickin' planet…you're going to have judgments against you, so much money, you'll never know how to get out from underneath it," he added.

Trump's lawyer continued to threaten the reporter by saying, "Tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting."

One thing is clear: Trump's lawyer has the same rhetorical style as Trump.

Shout out to my friend Nina Strochlic and former deputy Asawin Suebsaeng for helping report the story.