Blue Marble - September 2008

Election Day Is Deadly

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 11:27 PM EDT

441px-Accident_Nehoda_Uhersk%FD_Brod_2.jpg American presidential elections change the world. They also have a direct effect on public health. Fifty-five percent of the American population is mobilized to vote. Most rely on motor vehicles to get to a polling place. The result: an 18 percent increase in fatal motor vehicle crashes on presidential election day.

According to new research forthcoming in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the increased risk also extends to pedestrians. It persists across ages, sexes, regions, polling hours, and whether a Democrat or Republican is elected. Believe it or not, election day risks exceed those of Super Bowl Sunday and New Years Eve. Explanations: speed, distance, distraction, emotions, unfamiliar pathways to polls, and the potential mobilization of unfit drivers. (What about unfit candidates? Fear of them drives me faster to the polls.)

The investigators looked at all US presidential election days in the past 32 years, starting with Jimmy Carter. They also examined the Tuesday immediately before and immediately after election days as controls. The average presidential election leads to ~24 deaths from motor vehicle crashes. . . Talk about the ultimate sacrifice. All the more reason to make sure your candidate is really worth it.

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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Financial Risk-Taking Tied to Testosterone

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 12:19 AM EDT

800px-Testosterone_structure.png No kidding. A new study finds that higher levels of testosterone correlate with financial risk-taking behavior. A Harvard study assessed men's testosterone levels before participation in an investment game, and found those whose testosterone levels were more than one standard deviation above the mean invested 12 percent more than the average man in a risky investment.

A previous study had already proved that men are generally more likely than women to take investment risks. Another demonstrated that male stock market traders experienced greater profits on days their testosterone was above its median level. The Harvard study, forthcoming in Evolution and Human Behavior, was the first study to directly examine, and find a relationship between, testosterone and financial risk-taking.

So, should the Congressional bail-out include estrogen replacement therapy for financially foolish CEOs?

For those interested in the details of the study…

GAO Slams Carbon Offsets

| Fri Sep. 26, 2008 8:47 PM EDT

The GAO is soon to publish a report faulting the credibility of the carbon offset market. It suggests that Congress think carefully before letting companies use offsets to comply with climate change legislation. Everyone has known that offsets can be sketchy for a long time, but my article in the July/August issue of Mother Jones was the first to explore how leading offset companies have partnered with oil companies and anti-regulatory lobbying firms in an effort to carve out a huge new market for themselves through climate legislation. These are the same guys to whom well-intentioned enviros have paid millions to offset car trips and airline flights. The financial meltdown has been bad enough. Let's hope it won't take a polar meltdown for Congress to realize that a laissez-faire carbon market won't save us.

Arctic Speed-Melt Record

| Fri Sep. 26, 2008 8:15 PM EDT

Although 2008 did not set a record for minimum sea ice it did set a record for speed melting. Arctic sea ice declined at a rate of 32,700 square miles a day in August. That's about the size of Maine. Every day. And that's compared to 24,400 square miles a day lost in August 2007—the record holder for minimum sea ice.

The 2008 results were surprising, says NASA, because last winter had near-normal ice cover. "We saw a lot of cooling in the Arctic that we believe was associated with La Niña," says Joey Comiso of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "Sea ice in Canada had recovered and even expanded in the Bering Sea and Baffin Bay. Overall, sea ice recovered to almost average levels. That was a good sign that this year might not be as bad as last year."

But alas the sprint in August—the fastest-ever melt—undid the gains of the winter. Here's what it looked like:

Cement Plant Powered by Huggies

| Thu Sep. 25, 2008 7:31 PM EDT

Here's an idea that gives new meaning to waste management: to help produce energy, the Devil's Slide Cement plant in Morgan, Utah burns surplus diapers.

By mixing leftover Huggies with traditional sources, the company cuts coal consumption by 30 percent and prevents the disposables from clogging landfills. Only catch? Unused nappies only, please.

—Nikki Gloudeman

China's September Surprise: Tainted Formula Sickens 53,000 Infants

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 6:12 PM EDT

The Chinese government managed to keep its latest disaster under wraps last month when Beijing was all the world's stage: it's top formula-brand, and 21 others, have been tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical that led to more than 100 recalls of Chinese-made pet food here in the US and has been blamed for thousands of pet deaths.

What started out as a notification that one company was affected ballooned to 22 and now the government is admitting that the tainted milk has led to the deaths of at least four infants and has sickened another 53,000. Unlike seafood (and everything else), the US doesn't allow dairy imports from China, so no formula in the US is at risk, though the FDA has stepped up testing of candies and other desserts made of dairy products in China.

Cases started cropping up several months ago but the government was slow to respond and even slower to notify the public of the potential that the formula they were using was unsafe. Children are showing signs of incontinence, vomiting, and kidney trouble. Melamine is used to artificially boost protein content, a move seen as a way to cut corners in a Chinese production market where suppliers are forbidden from boosting prices.

Investigators are suggesting that the government knew about the tainted formula as far back as March, and a bad-news ban leading up to the Olympics put the health of thousands of children at risk.

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If These Are the Tainted Chinese Imports the FDA Is Catching, What Are They Missing?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 3:16 PM EDT

Recently released records for the month of August confirm that the FDA is still intercepting shipments of tainted seafood coming in from China. The first item on the rejection list? Frozen Breaded Shrimp, refused entry for containing "veterinary drug residues." But no Refusal Actions list is complete without the tainted Eel we've reported on previously. Sure enough, only nine items down—past the Prawn Crackers withheld for "unknown coloring" and the Unidentified White Powder lacking any directions whatsoever—there it is, the persistent Eel, Frozen, Vacuum-Packed, Prepared, Cooked, and complete with "unsafe additives."

Highlights of August's records include Frozen Cod Portions, Cod Blocks, Cod Fillets, Sole Fillets, Mahi Mahi Fillets, and Canned Chunk Tuna that were withheld for being "filthy, putrid, or decomposed," while the Frozen Squid Salad contained "a poisonous and deleterious substance." And that's just the seafood. It begs the question—if this is what the FDA is catching, what are they missing?

William Hubbard, a retired senior Food and Drug Administration official who served under seven presidents, told Mother Jones that as of this spring there were only about 300 inspectors to spot-check more than 13 million annual shipments. Given this, it's pretty certain that some of this tainted seafood is making its way onto your dinner plate.

Want more information? Here's where to find it.

Asheville, NC is Out of Gas

| Tue Sep. 23, 2008 4:45 PM EDT

gas.jpg The city of Asheville, North Carolina and surrounding towns are so short on gas that residents must wait over an hour to fill their tanks, reports the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Many gas stations have closed altogether. Those which remain open have police stationed at the pumps to prevent fights from breaking out—one driver threatened another with a baseball bat. Asheville officials have canceled all nighttime events, and the county is asking that nonessential employees work from home or switch to a four-day week.

The gas crunch began after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike swept through the Gulf Coast, shutting down the oil refineries that supply western North Carolina. Because of its relatively remote location high in the Blue Ridge mountains, county officials estimate that shortages in the Asheville area will continue at least through the end of the month.

New Study Puts The "Perma" Back In Permafrost

| Mon Sep. 22, 2008 6:38 PM EDT

It's not perfect, but it's something: A new study from researchers at the University of Alberta says that Arctic permafrost may be less vulnerable to global warming than previously thought.

The study, which will be published tomorrow in the journal Science, found that a permafrost ice wedge in Canada's Yukon Territory is more than 700,000 years old, meaning that it withstood two previous cycles of intense warming. Lead researcher Duane Froese said that the findings mean we're further from a widespread thawing—and the catastrophic release of carbon and other gases that would accompany it—than earlier predictions have suggested.

Great, right? Not so fast, says Froese. While deep, ancient frost like the chunk he studied may be safe, the top layers of permafrost, formed much more recently, remain in serious danger. And it's those layers that could cause the most damage.

Still, it's heartening to know that at least some parts of the Earth are more resilient than we think they are. Of course, 700,000 years ago, no one was trying to see how far they could push that resilience.

Science Predicts The Election

| Fri Sep. 19, 2008 8:02 PM EDT

800px-ElectoralCollege2004.svg.png This has been kicking around for a while but the flips of late are interesting. An astrophysicist whose ranking system influences which college football teams get into the top four bowls each year is taking aim at predicting presidential races. Wes Colley at the University of Alabama Huntsville and J. Richard Gott III at Princeton came up with a way to gauge which candidates are ahead in each state.

Their system is simple: Take the margins of victory for each candidate in each poll, line them up in order from smallest to largest, then use the median as the candidate's score for that state. The winner in that computation is also the candidate winning the majority of the polls in that state. Their paper will appear in next month's Mathematical and Computer Modeling.

Colley and Gott first tested the system in the 2004 and correctly predicted the winner between Kerry and Bush in 49 of the 50 states. They also predicted the electoral votes each candidate received. They missed only Hawaii. Well, Hawaii shouldn't be tough to call this year. Follow the horse race at their Electoral Scoreboard, including daily tracking scores.

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