Blue Marble

California Is About to Ban Those Little Pieces of Plastic in Your Toothpaste and Face Scrub

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 7:49 PM EDT
A sample of microbeads collected in Lake Eerie

On Friday, the California Senate passed legislation that will ban the sale of microbeads—​those colorful bits of plastic that you find in face scrub, body wash, and toothpaste—in personal care products by 2020. 

Though a handful of other states ​have already passed microbead bans, California's is by far the most stringent, as it doesn't provide exemptions for "biodegradeable" plastics. (No plastics have proven to break down in marine environments so far.) Because California makes up roughly one-eighth of the American market for personal care products, the legislation will likely change the way the products are designed throughout the United States.

Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble lobbied against the bill, which is expected to pass the State Assembly next week and be signed into law within the month.

Environmental advocates have expressed concern over microbeads for years, as the particles are so small that they aren't caught in wastewater treatment plants and end up in waterways and oceans, where they don't biodegrade and are frequently mistaken for food by fish and other marine animals. There are an estimated 300,000 microbeads in a single tube of face wash; collectively, roughly 300 tons of the plastic ends up in US waterways each year.

"Toxic microbeads are accumulating in our rivers, lakes and oceans at alarmingly high levels. We can and must act now," said assembly member Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), who authored the bill. "Continuing to use these harmful and unnecessary plastics when natural alternatives are widely available is simply irresponsible and will only result in significant cleanups costs to taxpayers who will have to foot the bill to restore our already limited water resources and ocean health."

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California Is Fining a Company That's Supplied Starbucks' Bottled Water—for Making the Drought Worse

| Fri Sep. 4, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Sugar Pine Spring Water, a California company that has supplied bottled water to Starbucks, was hit on Tuesday with a complaint and draft cease-and-desist order by the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) for alleged illegal diversion and bulk delivery of water in 2014 and 2015. It's the first enforcement action taken against a bottled-water supplier since the state declared a drought emergency in January 2014.  

After the company delayed making its water collection site available for inspection, government surveillance cameras captured images of tankers accessing the property.

As I reported this spring, Starbucks' Ethos Water brand has sourced water sold in the chain's western US stores from suppliers tapping the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, areas the US Drought Monitor has declared to be in "exceptional drought" conditions. Starbucks subsequently announced it would be phasing out its use of California water over the next six months. Mother Jones asked Starbucks whether it was still using water from Sugar Pine Spring Water, but the company has not yet responded.

Ethos Water has long been produced in a Safeway bottling plant in Merced, California, that uses Sugar Pine water for the Starbucks brand.

The SWRCB notified Sugar Pine owner Scott Fahey in 2014 "that there was not sufficient water to continue diverting under his permit," and the company was again notified in April 2015. After Sugar Pine delayed making its water collection site available to SWRCB agents for inspection, government personnel deployed surveillance cameras on public roads around the locked site to capture images of tankers accessing the property. The cease-and-desist order says that between July 12 and August 5 of this year, 99 tanker trucks were counted accessing the water transfer station, which SWRCD staff estimated to contain about 653,400 gallons of water just in that time period.

Sugar Pine taps into several springs joined by more than five miles of underground pipes that cross a mixture of private and state-owned land. The SWRCB complaint notes that Sugar Pine taps into water sources that drain into the Tuolumne River watershed and the Don Pedro Reservoir, sources relied on by the city of San Francisco and area farmers.

The company has 20 days to request a hearing. If it doesn't, the state will issue a final cease-and-desist order, which carries a fine of up to $10,000 a day or referral to the attorney general. Fahey's attorney declined to comment to the Associated Press, which reported that "he anticipates a hearing before the state water board."

California's Division of Water Rights staff is recommending a fine of $224,875 to settle the complaint.

From our original investigation, a little more context:

Ethos Water was supposed to help fix the global water crisis: Founded in 2002 in Southern California, the bottled-water company promised that for every unit it sold, it would donate a small amount of money to water charity projects in the developing world.

The idea quickly took off. In 2005, Ethos was acquired by Starbucks. Now, for every $1.95 bottle of Ethos water it sells, Starbucks makes a 5-cent donation to the Ethos Water Fund, part of the Starbucks Foundation. "When our customers choose to buy Ethos Water, they're improving the lives of people who lack vital resources," Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said in 2008.

Some of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood have lent their names to Starbucks' Ethos brand. Matt Damon starred in an ad campaign, and Starbucks partnered with a company that drives celebrities to the Oscars and filled the cars with Ethos bottles, "so Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz walked into the awards carrying Ethos Water," as Ethos cofounder Peter Thum explained. In 2011, Ethos' other cofounder, Jonathan Greenblatt, became special assistant to the president and head of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Obama himself lauded Greenblatt last fall for his "innovative solutions to America's challenges."

Starbucks says that its partnership with Ethos has raised more than $12.3 million for water charity projects to date.

So far, media coverage has focused on Starbucks' goal to quench the thirst of the world's parched masses; the story behind the bottled water it sells here in the United States has been a nonissue. But now, as California's historic drought wears on, Starbucks is facing a water crisis of its own.

The bottling plant that Starbucks uses for its Ethos customers in the western United States is located in Merced, California, which is currently ranked in the "exceptional drought" category by the US Drought Monitor. Its residents face steep water cuts in their homes, and surface water for the region's many farms is drying up.

Read the full investigation here.

Maybe We'll Win the War Against HIV After All

| Thu Sep. 3, 2015 8:04 PM EDT

A new study published Tuesday in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases shows a HIV-prevention treatment may have been successful at preventing new cases of the disease.

The regimen, which is called preexposure prophylaxix (or PrEP), involves administering antiviral medication to those at-risk for contracting HIV—stopping infections before they become permanent. This is the largest evaluation of PrEP, administered daily as a single pill called Truvada, since the Food and Drug Administration approved the drugs in 2012. Also, it's the first study done outside a clinical setting.

During the course of the 32-month study, researchers at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco Medical Center found no new cases of infection among the 675 patients taking Truvada, most of whom were gay men considered to be at higher risk for contracting HIV.

Critics of the drug have raised concerns that it will pave the way for unsafe sex—much like the accusations against early birth control users. However, health officials and gay rights advocates have overwhelmingly voiced support for its use, saying it may be a promising treatment for preventing the spread of HIV.

Previous studies, conducted in a clinical setting, showed that the drug could stop 92 percent of HIV infections in those taking the pills if they are taken correctly and consistently. Truvada is currently recommended by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization for at-risk groups, including drug-users, gay and bisexual men as well as anyone who has a HIV-positive partner.

Kaiser researchers, however, emphasized the treatment should be used more widely, and "underscored the need for outreach to others at risk for HIV, including transgender women, heterosexual men and women, and people using injection drugs."

3 Hurricanes Are Hitting the Pacific at the Same Time, and the View From Space Is Amazing

| Wed Sep. 2, 2015 2:05 PM EDT
Three hurricanes are churning across the Pacific right now.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are marveling at a particularly awesome view from orbit right now. This week marks the first time that three major hurricanes—dubbed Kilo, Ignacio, and Jimena—have been captured simultaneously churning across the Pacific Ocean, according to the United Kingdom's Met Office. (The National Hurricane Center agrees.)

The storms are being fueled by warmer waters caused by this year's El Niño, the global climate event that occurs every five to seven years, bringing drought to places like Australia, while heaping rain on the Western United States. The Met Office says temperature anomalies in this part of the world are currently at their highest since 1997-98.

According to the Met Office: "Hurricanes Kilo, Ignacio and Jimena were all at category 4 simultaneously in the Pacific east of the International Dateline—the first time three major hurricanes have been recorded at the same time in this region." The Met Office says tropical cyclone activity across the northern hemisphere this year is about 200 percent above normal. Six hurricanes have crossed the central Pacific, more than in any other year on record, the agency says.

The view from space is incredible:

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says manmade global warming is likely to drive up the number of intense hurricanes like these around the world—despite a predicted overall drop in all types of weaker, tropical storms. By the end of the century, hurricanes will likely produce substantially higher rainfall—up to 20 percent more—than present-day hurricanes.

So far, Hawaii appears to be safe, and no humans are in the paths of destruction, allowing us to enjoy the spectacular view.

New Study Finds That Humans Should Kill Smaller, Younger Animals

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 11:00 AM EDT
Don't worry, some small animals should be kept around as clickbait.

When it comes to food, humans gravitate to the biggest item on the menu: overstuffed turkeys, 1,000-pound sturgeons, the fattest burger. But a new study in Science shows how our obsession with taking down the biggest prey is damaging the world's wildlife.

Looking at 282 marine species and 117 terrestrial mammals, researchers at the University of Victoria found that human hunters and fishers overwhelmingly target adult animals over juveniles. Driven by the prestige and financial payoff of a trophy kill or gargantuan catch—and an aversion to killing young animals that might be seen as cute—humans consume up to 14 times the amount of adult animal biomass as other predators. And that's contributing to the swift decline of populations of large fish and land carnivores, the researchers say.

Thanks to advanced hunting tactics and tools that allow us to kill without getting too close, humans have long been able to take down massive prey (e.g., the Ice Age mammoths). But with modern advancements such as guns and the automated dragnets of industrial-scale fishing, we've turned into "super-predators," the researchers write. That's just one reason, along with the ravages of climate change and habitat destruction, we're currently in the process of losing one in six species on Earth.

These findings go against the assumption that it's better to target mature animals and spare younger ones. "Harvesters typically are required by law to release so-called under-sized salmon, trout, or crabs, or to set their rifle scopes on the 6-point elk and not the calves," explained Chris Darimont, one of the study's authors, in a call with reporters. Those regulations are in line with the paradigm of "sustainable exploitation," the idea that killing off big adult animals that dominate a habitat will allow the young to flourish and reproduce.

Humans exploit large prey at far higher rates than other predators. P. Huey/ Science

The authors argue that this approach causes undesirable reverberations in the food web and, eventually, the gene pool. While the loss of the largest predators may be a boon to their prey in the short-term, ballooning populations of herbivores can devastate vegetation and have been linked to festering illnesses. While humans may raise increasingly large domesticated animals—whether by pumping cows with steroids or breeding only the fattest hogs—exploiting the largest animals in the wild can lead to tinier animals. For example, as bigger, stronger fish are plucked from the oceans, survival of the fittest undergoes a strange inversion: Smaller fish are more likely to reproduce in their absence, producing fewer, smaller offspring that are less resistant to further threats.

The authors suggest that human hunters start thinking small. In the case of fisheries, they suggest focusing on smaller catches—a process of narrowing entrances into traps and nets and using hooks to allow larger fish to evade capture. To preserve top carnivores on land, Darimont and coauthor Tom Reimchen say that tolerance—and a decreased emphasis on prized trophy kills—is the best way to bolster dwindling populations.

There Might Be Fracking Wastewater on Your Organic Fruits and Veggies

| Thu Aug. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in the USDA's organic food safety program.

The US Department of Agriculture's organics standards, written 15 years ago, strictly ban petroleum-derived fertilizers commonly used in conventional agriculture. But the same rules do not prohibit farmers from irrigating their crops with petroleum-laced wastewater obtained from oil and gas wells—a practice that is increasingly common in drought-stricken Southern California.

"No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater."

As I reported last month, oil companies last year supplied half the water that went to the 45,000 acres of farmland in Kern County's Cawelo Water District, farmland that is owned, in part, by Sunview, a company that sells certified organic raisins and grapes. Food watchdog groups are concerned that the state hasn't required oil companies to disclose all the chemicals they use in oil drilling and fracking operations, much less set safety limits for all those chemicals in irrigation water.

A spokesman for the USDA's National Organics Program confirmed that it has little to say on the matter. "The USDA organic regulations do not directly address the use of irrigation water on organic farms," said the spokesman, who asked to be quoted on background, "but organic operations must generally maintain or improve the natural resources of the operation, including soil and water quality."

Of course, that's easier said than done. USDA organic regulations do not require farms to perform water quality tests, and irrigation water is not evaluated as an input by the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets products used on organic farms. Calls placed to California Certified Organic Farmers, which certifies organic farms in California, were not returned.

Irrigation water appears to be a major loophole in a food safety program that otherwise strictly controls what farmers can apply to their land. Notably, the organics program does prohibit the use of sewage sludge-based fertilizer, a product widely used on nonorganic farms that sometimes contains chemicals such as flame retardants and pharmaceuticals.

On Monday, California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, a Democrat from Glendale, introduced a bill that would require crops irrigated with wastewater from oil and gas operations to be labeled as such. "No one expects their lettuce to contain heavy chemicals from fracking wastewater," he explained in a press release.

That's especially true if their lettuce is labeled "organic," adds Adam Scow, the California director of the environmental group Food and Water Watch: "I think most people's logic would tell them that's not a practice consistent with organic standards."

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The FDA Just Approved "Viagra for Women"

| Tue Aug. 18, 2015 8:35 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

More than 17 years after it ushered in Viagra, the Federal Drug Administration approved the first women's sex-drive drug, flibanserin, earlier today.  Sprout Pharmaceuticals will manufacture the drug, which they've named Addyi, and sell it to women with low libido, or hypoactive sexual desire disorder (HSDD).

While the pill has garnered much attention under monikers like "pink Viagra" or "Viagra for women," its purpose and mechanism have little in common with the famous blue pill for men. The drug will not physically bring blood to parts of the body to assist arousal, but instead will alter chemicals in the brain to increase sexual desire.

Is this a victory for women after decades of being ignored by biased pharmaceutical researchers?

Well, not necessarily. As we reported in June:

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Not a great track record. Many health experts and academics doubt the existence of HSDD and believe Big Pharma is fabricating a disorder and exploiting gender imbalances to create a new market. Private investors staked some $50 million on flibanserin's approval, according to Forbes.

The FDA's decision came after two prior rejections of the drug because of side effects like dry mouth, fatigue, nausea, and fainting. On the bright side, consumers of Addyi ready to jump into bed will be relieved to hear that the side effects have apparently been diminished.

California Is on Fire. This Map Shows Where.

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 7:21 PM EDT
A wildfire burning near Clearlake, California, earlier this month.

On August 17, 2013—two years ago today—a deer hunter near California's Yosemite National Park ignored a campfire ban and burned trash from his dinner. The embers blew into dry brush, starting the third worst wildfire in the state's history. All told, the Rim Fire, as it came to be called, burned 257,314 acres in and around Yosemite.

No wildfires of that scale have occurred since, but, thanks to drought and climate change, California is far from out of the woods. In fact, in 2015, 4,382 wildfires have already scorched a total of 117,960 acres, more than double the five-year average for this time of year. Firefighters have finally controlled the largest two fires, in Northern California's Jerusalem Valley, but not before the blazes razed nearly 100,000 acres. 

The map below, made by California's wildfire fighting agency, Cal Fire, gives a sense of where these fires are occurring. To read more details about each fire and how much of it is contained today, click on the map's fire icons or see Cal Fire's ongoing reports here

And California isn't even the state with the most acres burning right now. A blaze in Idaho has consumed more than 200,000 acres so far. In Alaska, wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres this year. This map from the research organization Climate Central shows where wildfires are occurring nationwide:

Your Meat-Eating Habit Is Killing More Than Just Cows

| Mon Aug. 17, 2015 6:15 AM EDT

The earth is in the middle of its sixth mass extinction, and die-offs are happening more quickly than ever before. In a little over a century, the world has said goodbye to more than 400 species—and many biologists believe this is just the beginning. Scientists predict that in the next 35 years, as many as 37 percent of the world's species could go extinct, if current trends continue.

While we know that climate change is a major culprit in the loss of biodiversity, some researchers now believe burgers might also be to blame. In a new report, a team from Florida International University cited the land degradation, pollution, and deforestation caused by rising global demand for meat as "likely the leading cause of modern species extinctions," and the problem is only expected to get worse.

The world's most biodiverse areas are also the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years.

"It's a colossally important paper," Gidon Eshel, a geophysicist at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson, New York, who studies how human diets affect the environment, told Science Magazine:

Researchers have struggled to determine the full impacts of meat consumption on biodiversity, Eshel says. "Now we can say, only slightly fancifully: You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot."

Meat consumption has increased globally by 24 percent since the 1960s, mostly fueled by high demand from wealthy countries like the United States. Each year the number of livestock—specifically cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo—increases by 25 million, requiring more space for both housing and feed production. Cattle, which require vast amounts of feed and produce the potent greenhouse gas methane, are expected to grow in number by more than 1 billion by 2050.

The world's "biodiveristy hotspots," areas biologists have identified where many species flourish, have already been reduced by nearly 90 percent in size and are now restricted to only 2 percent of the Earth's land surface. What's worse is that these biodiverse areas are the places where meat production is most likely to increase in the coming years. Researchers have predicted an additional loss of as much as 50 percent of land to livestock production.

Though Americans are already eating less meat than they used to, the researchers emphasized the continued need to cut back, especially because of how much meat ends up going to waste: Thirty percent of food—or $48 billion worth—is wasted in the United States each year, pushing up demand for meat production. "To support a future with lower animal product food demands," they write, "would drastically reduce habitat and biodiversity loss, fossil fuel energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and pollution, while providing highly nutritious diets that greatly improve human health."

Los Angeles Just Found an Awesome Way to Fight the Drought. It Involves Balls. Here Is a Video.

| Wed Aug. 12, 2015 5:40 PM EDT

On Monday afternoon, the mayor of Los Angeles found a ballsy way to fight California's unprecedented drought:

 

LA just completed a project at the LA Reservoir to save 300 million gallons of water by deploying shade balls on its surface, saving our city over $250 million dollars while keeping our water clean & safe.

Posted by Mayor Eric Garcetti on Monday, August 10, 2015

There are now 96 million "shade balls" floating on the surface of the LA Reservoir. They're made of plastic, the same kind of polyethylene that gallon-sized milk jugs are made of, so they don't pose a threat to the drinking water, according to the LA Times. They're designed to keep water from evaporating and are expected to conserve 300 million gallons per year. And at a cost of $35 million, they're about $250 million cheaper than the alternative, a tarp-like covering.

So, saving California from the drought just takes leadership from someone with a pair of…sorry I'll just stop now.

#shadeballs.