Blue Marble - July 2008

Bad Air Killing Eastern US

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 5:28 PM PDT

800px-Gavin_Plant.JPG Thinks it's just China? Well, every major ecosystem type in the eastern US is being degraded by air pollution. That's right: Adirondack forests, Shenandoah streams, Appalachian wetlands, and the Chesapeake Bay, to name a few.

A new report [pdf] is the first to analyze the combined effects of four air pollutants across a broad range of habitat types.

Most studies focus on one pollutant. And why not? Things always look so much better that way.

But the sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and ground-level ozone that are released into the air from smokestacks, tailpipes, and agricultural operations fall back to Earth sooner or later. Ooops.

And because the eastern U.S. is downwind from gynormous pollution sources, it receives the highest levels of deposited air pollution anywhere in North America.

That's bad news for wildlife, forests, soil, water, and, guess what?, economies.

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Beijing Spectators Risk Heart Attacks

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 12:40 PM PDT

beijing200.jpgResearchers at Northwestern University warn that pollution in Beijing is so extreme that it could trigger cardiac arrest and strokes in spectators and athletes.

Advice from the docs:

Stay indoors during traffic rush-hour periods. "Indoor air pollution levels are always much lower than outdoor, so staying inside will limit your exposure," Budinger said. He cautioned that Beijing's definition of mild pollution would be a pollution alert day in the U.S.

So that's all good advice for the millions who will be descending upon Beijing for a few weeks, but what about the people who actually live there?

Oh yeah, them: The 750,000 Chinese people that die prematurely from pollution every year—and that the Chinese government doesn't want you to know about. Are they just supposed to stay inside all day every day?

For a good overview of some of the emergency measures Beijing officials have taken to prepare for the Olympics, go here. Hope they keep it up after the party ends. For everyone's sake.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Commemorating Bush's Sh*t

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 4:33 PM PDT

263388397_6feb4ae850.jpg My favorite news of the day. And one reason my heart will always be in San Francisco.

A measure has qualified for San Francisco's November ballot renaming the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant the George W. Bush Sewage Plant.

In recognitionof the crap Bush left behind in Iraq. And everywhere.

A quagmire named for the Begetter-of-all-Quagmires.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

The Blue Marble Gets a Moon

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 4:08 PM PDT

And we get to see it in orbit around the Earth. Thanks to NASA's Epoxi spacecraft, en route to Comet Hartley 2 in 2010. The film was shot from 31 million miles away. An alien's p.o.v.

Such a pretty world. Why don't we take better care of it?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

How Long Will You Live? Depends Where You Live

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 2:57 PM PDT

The American Human Development Project's new report measures the well being of US citizens based on education, health, and income. Unsurprisingly, being an American is much better for some than others.

Of the ten states with the highest median earnings, six are in the Northeast while the rest are just south of there. A whopping 46% of Texas' 29th District (East Houston) never graduated from high school, compared to a drop out rate of only 5% in California's 30th District, which includes Beverly Hills and Malibu.

How well off are you? Test yourself here. Want more? Watch this.

The report may be telling us what some of us already know about our abysmal health care system—that we spend more per person than any other nation only to die younger than basically all of Western Europe—but when the life expectancy of residents in Kentucky's Fifth District is 73 years (same as our national average was in 1978), hard numbers are still sobering.

—Brittney Andres

LEDs Just Got Brighter

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 4:08 PM PDT

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Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are four times more efficient than incandescent lights and greener than compact fluorescent bulbs (think: mercury). They also last up to 15 years before burning out.

So why aren't they everywhere?

Because they're expensive—created on a pricey layer of sapphire.

Until now. Purdue University researchers report a novel technique using cheap metal-coated silicon wafers to make LEDs.

Cheaper is better. Widespread LED use could cut electricity consumption by 10 percent.

That could help us heed Al Gore's call to produce all global-warming-free electricity by 2018.

The LED findings appear this month in Applied Physics Letters, journal of the American Institute of Physics.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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LA's Lean, Green, Dating Machines

| Thu Jul. 17, 2008 12:40 PM PDT

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Leave it to LA to find a way to combine efficiency, sex, and eco-street cred. In the city of instant gratification, there's now an easy way to determine if that cute guy at the gym will build a LEED-rated home with you: green speed dating!

Jenean Smith, founder of the Green Speed Dating website, came up with the idea while brainstorming ways to raise money to install solar panels at a rural school in Nicaragua. "One day—I have no idea why—I said, you know what the world really needs? Green speed dating!" She set up an event in Santa Monica, where for $20 participants could spend three minutes on green mini-dates. Eco-conscious Angelenos couldn't get enough. "There's all these green singles' sites that don't have enough people on them, and there's regular speed-dating where you don't know who you're going to meet," says Smith. "People liked that this was a green event for a good cause."

And how did the LA speed-daters evaluate their potential partners' green-ness? By asking what they drove, of course! One lucky guy narrowly escaped having to admit he owned an SUV; another found his bicyling habit made him a little too green for most dates. NPR caught some of the oh-so-awkward car convos; listen yourself here.

Okay, okay, so only in LA would cars be the focus of a green dating event. (To each his own: Portland, OR offers bicycle speed dating.) But the cause is indeed worthy, and word of the site is spreading fast. California readers take note: This could be your summer of green love.

African-Americans Genetically Prone to HIV, AIDS

| Wed Jul. 16, 2008 10:53 AM PDT

New research shows that Africans and African-Americans bear a gene variant that helps protect them from malaria, but also makes them more vulnerable to HIV infection. The variant increases susceptability to HIV by 40 percent, says the San Francisco Chronicle.

The genetic trait is found in 90 percent of Africans and 60 percent of African-Americans. Thus far, it has protected against malaria by disabling a protein that some strains of malaria use to enter red blood cells. However, that same protein that's disabled in Africans to prevent malaria can actually protect against HIV by soaking up virus cells before they can invade white blood cells. With this sponge-like protein disabled, Africans lose a key pre-infection barrier.

This finding helps explain, in part, the high HIV infection rates among Sub-Saharan Africans and Americans of African descent. On the flipside, there is a genetic variant among people of Northern European heritage that actually makes them immune to HIV infection. Scientists think the mutation was passed down by ancestors who survived the Black Plague. In one test, a man's blood was exposed to 3,000 times the amount of HIV needed to infect a cell, but infection still didn't occur. The HIV virus simply had no gateway of entry.

Both the European and African genetic traits are currently being studied to see if they can shed light on a cure to HIV.

The Cutest Rehab

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 6:53 PM PDT

This video is funny and sweet. It restores my faith in human beings. Even Amy Winehouse would love it. Maybe.

Produced by Bluevoice, it shows a bunch of volunteers from Orca, a Peruvian nonprofit, as they rescue and rehabilitate sea lion and fur seal pups orphaned by fishing nets and disease.

Part of the rehab involves the volunteers releasing their inner sea lions. You know, barking, socializing, and climbing all over each other, just like pinnipeds do.

The heroic part: these volunteers work in the seriously cold waters of the Peru Current. They have no money for wetsuits and tough it out for hours in soggy jeans.

Bluevoice is trying to raise the money to test tissue samples and figure out why all the seal mothers are dying.

(First seen on my secret addiction, the antidote to bad news, CuteOverload.)

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Dead Zone Overkill

| Tue Jul. 15, 2008 5:08 PM PDT

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The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is set to bust all its own records. Forecasts suggest this super-duper-unproductive ocean zone will reach 8,800 square miles this summer. That's the size of New Jersey.

Last year it reached 7,903 square miles. The earlier record was 8,481 square miles in 2002.

Notice a trend?

Notice the Bizarre-New-Age-of-Abysmal-Record-Everythings we've entered?

For those of you who've been asleep during the Bush-van-Winkle years, here's the primer. A dead zone forms when fertilizers wash from farms via rivers to fertilize the sea.

There are other reasons too. Including whatever nutrients you add to your lawn. Don't even get me started on golf courses.

So this year's climate-change-induced record floods on the Mississippi River do a lot more damage than to Midwestern croplands.

That's because the ocean doesn't like a lot of fertilizer. It makes too many plants grow. Those plants die and feed too many decomposers who use up all the oxygen in the water. Everything suffocates.

Dead zone. Coming soon to a seashore near you.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.