Blue Marble - April 2010

Will FDA Ban Triclosan?

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

If you've ever used antibacterial soap, chances are you've rubbed the chemical triclosan on your hands. In fact, says the Washington Post, triclosan is so common that it's been found in the urine of 75 percent of the population. Mother Jones reported that it's also been detected in breast milk and 58 percent of US waterways. The problem: Experts strongly suspect that the chemical disrupts the endocrine system and also could contribute to antibiotic resistance.

Good news, then, that the FDA has finally decided to investigate the health effects of triclosan. An FDA spokesperson told the Post:

"For triclosan, the science is changing," Throckmorton said. "Based on what we know, we don't have evidence to suggest this chemical is a threat to human health. However, we have to understand better the health effects and we have to work with other agencies to collect that information and then decide whether or not we need to change how it's regulated."

But the soap industry trade group has already fought back. Says Brian Sansoni of the Soap and Detergent Association:

"These products and ingredients have been reviewed, regulated and researched for decades," he said. "We believe the science strongly supports the safety and efficacy of these products. It's more important than ever that consumers continue to have access to these products. It's a time of increased threats from disease and germs."

Could Americans' germaphobia actually be making us less healthy? More here.

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Toxic Landfill Fails EPA Test

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

Remember Kettleman City? That town midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, where nearly half the residents live below the poverty line and an unusually high number suffer from asthma, cancer, and birth defects? Last month, I wrote that for 23 years Kettleman's residents have blamed their local landfill, which contains chemicals known to cause cancer and reproductive complications, for their health problems. Those health problems include miscarriages and 11 infant birth defect cases in three years. Well, Kettleman just got some good news.

Recently, the US Environmental Protection Agency notified Chemical Waste Management that its landfill in Kettleman is violating PCB disposal rules. The EPA actually found traces of polychlorinated biphenyls in the soil near Waste Management's facility back in 2007 but failed to take action, according to local reports. The fed's current findings discredit Waste Management's repeated claims that its facility is safe and in compliance with toxic substance control regulations. Central Valley Business Times reports:

[Bob] Henry [Waste Management's senior district manager] says recently completed monitoring of air, soil and vegetation at the site "has confirmed that PCBs stored and treated at the Kettleman Hills Facility have no impact on human health or the environment."

Really? Congress banned PCBs back in the Seventies because they were found to be "probable" human carcinogens. Their improper disposal definitely poses a health and environmental risk. Regardless, the EPA's news bolsters Kettleman's informal case against the largest landfill in California. The news puts the Central Valley town in league with Anniston, Alabama or more appropriately Warren County, North Carolina—towns that had at least one landfill in which PCBs were improperly stored and local residents complained of illnesses. Stand by for more developments in this story.

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Want to Pressure Iran? Stop Buying Oil.

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 10:01 AM EDT

Want to apply "consistent and steady" international pressure on Iran, as President Barack Obama said world leaders should do recently? Stop sending them oil money.

How to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a core subject of the Nuclear Security Summit underway in Washington this week. A new analysis from the Center for American Progress suggests that cutting the amount of oil we buy, via a cap on carbon dioxide pollution, is a good place to start. While we don't buy oil directly from Iran, we are the world's biggest consumer of petroleum, driving up demand:</p>

Iran, "which holds the world’s second-biggest oil and gas reserves and supplies about 4.5 percent of the world’s oil production," uses its oil power "as a strategic asset." Even though oil is "one of history's Big Levers concerning Iran," the idea of gas sanctions to control Iran’s oil income is not likely to succeed, and could even backfire.
One mechanism to control the flow of petrodollars to Iran—whose oil production is worth $120 billion a year at current prices—is for the United States to control its appetite for oil. Based on an economic analysis by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology of a carbon cap that reduces global warming pollution by 80 percent by 2050, the Wonk Room has found that Iran would lose approximately $1.8 trillion worth of oil revenues over the next forty years — over $100 million a day.

Dan Lashof, director of the climate center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, has a great post echoing this point. One of the big questions about the pending climate and energy bill is whether its method of pricing petroleum will prove effective in cutting oil consumption. But it's worth remembering that reducing oil use would yield more than environmental benefits alone.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday April 13

| Tue Apr. 13, 2010 6:17 AM EDT

What We Eat: New infographic shows Americans top consumers of processed foods.

Moving Target: Cutting emissions is going to be hard when we keep growing.

Sue Me: One pro-healthcare Dem says GOP's anti-healthcare lawsuits are a-okay.

Pond Scum: Court battles between private pond owners and migratory bird advocates.

Echo Chamber: Climate-denying Chamber of Commerce has a video competition.

Kudos: There's still debate over who took out Bart Stupak: pro-choicers or Tea Party?

Making Us Sick: New book on big pharma and depression vs. regular sadness.

Tomayto, Tomahto: Review of new book gives history and genetics of the tomato.

 

A Climate Bill Surge?

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 2:22 PM EDT

Last week, we noted that Larry Summers, director of Obama's National Economic Council, called for an "eclectic" energy policy in a speech at the Energy Information Administration. But the rest of his speech was far more interesting than that soundbite suggests. Summers painted the need for an energy overhaul as a strategic economic move that must be made post-haste.

Energy & Environment News posted the full speech today, which calls for "a new gestalt, a new view, a new paradigm, and a commitment to renewal" on energy policy:

Which, I ask you, has greater danger going forward: that we will, in the name of comprehensive energy policy somehow do too much that will affect energy markets by encouraging efficiency or encouraging exploration, or that we will again miss the opportunity, that we will again not act strongly enough with respect to a gathering storm?
Read the history of great nations. Read how they succeed and read how they fail. Their ability to mobilize to solve problems before they are absolutely imminent crises is what determines their longevity. That's why this task of economic renewal is so important broadly. And that's why I believe it is so important that we move for economic reasons to pass comprehensive energy legislation.

The E&E story posits that the Summers speech is a prelude to a "climate-bill surge" in the coming weeks. The three senators working on climate legislation—John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)—have said they will have a bill ready for release next week, in anticipation of Earth Day on April 22. But the opening for passing a major law this year is quickly narrowing. If the Obama administration is serious about getting legislation in place, go time is now.

Conserving Southern Energy

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

According to a new study, upgrading energy efficiency (new appliance standards, incentives for retrofitting and weatherization, upgrades to utility plants) in the southern US in the next 20 years could:

  • Save consumers $41 billion on their energy bills.
  • Open 380,000 new jobs.
  • Save 8.6 billion gallons of water by 2020.

The South uses more energy per capita than elsewhere in the US and every dollar invested in efficiency there over the next 20 years will reap $2.25 in benefits. Currently, the 36 percent of Americans who live in the south consume 44 percent of the nation's energy, while supplying 48 percent of the nation's power. Energy efficiency has lagged in the South, where low electricity rates have encouraged consumption, energy-efficient products have not penetrated the market as much as other parts of the country, and states have spent less per capita on efficiency programs than the national average.

Researchers from Duke U and the Georgia Institute of Technology modeled the interaction of nine efficiency policies for residential, commercial, and industrial energy use over 20 years in the District of Columbia and 16 southern states. They found that without improvements in energy efficiency, the South will use 15 percent more energy by 2030. But aggressive energy efficiency initiatives would:

  • Reduce overall utility bills by $41 billion a year in 2020 and $71 billion in 2030.
  • Reduce average residential electricity bills by $26 per month in 2020 and $50 per month in 2030.
  • Reduce the need for new power plants, retiring nearly 25 gigawatts of older power plants, while avoiding the construction of up to 50 gigawatts of new plants (equal to the amount of electricity produced by 100 power plants).
  • Conserve water by reducing power plant capacity, saving the South 8.6 billion gallons of fresh water in 2020 and 20.1 billion gallons in 2030.

The report Energy Efficiency in the South is open access online, including a state-by-state breakdown.

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Big Coal In the Hot Seat

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 10:10 AM EDT

Top executives from three of the country's largest coal companies will testify before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming on Wednesday, where they will address, among other things, what they think about climate change.

 Peabody Energy, Arch Coal and Rio Tinto have significantly different takes on climate legislation. Rio Tinto is a member of the US Climate Action Partnership, which advocates for putting a price on carbon. Peabody and Arch, however, both oppose climate legislation. 

The committee doesn't oversee mine safety policy, and Massey Energy won't be among the witnesses, but it's inevitable that the hearing will cover the recent tragedy in West Virginia that led to the deaths of 29 miners. The House Education and Labor Committee is also expected to look more closely at the disaster, and senators have pledged to examine it as well.

With concerns mounting about both safety issues and carbon pollution, the coal industry is coming under heavy fire. The Environmental Protection Agency recently issued tough new guidelines on the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining. And it's not so long since the the coal industry's front group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, found itself mired in scandal after it hired a contractor that forged letters from citizens' groups protesting the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill and sent them to members of Congress.

Wednesday's hearing aims to delve deeper into all these questions about the industry's future. "Whether it's climate science, the viability of 'clean coal,' or safety concerns, I believe Congress requires answers from the coal industry on their ability to be a part of our clean energy future," said committee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

I'll have more from the hearing this week.

Which Veggie Burgers Were Made With a Neurotoxin?

| Mon Apr. 12, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

UPDATE: Veggie burger rumors are flying! Some readers and other news organizations have alleged that the study I wrote about on Monday was funded by the pro-meat, anti-soy group the Weston A. Price Foundation. But this morning, I spoke with Cornucopia Institute director Mark Kastel, who said that the Weston A. Price Foundation did not contribute any funding to the "Behind the Bean" (pdf) study. More here.

UPDATE: Readers' questions about veggie burgers and hexane answered here.

This is about the time of year when I start keeping packages of veggie burgers in the freezer, just in case of an impromptu barbecue. In the past, I haven't had much fake meat brand loyalty: I've found that once I smother my hunk of textured vegetable protein in barbeque sauce, all soy patties are pretty much created equal. But after reading a recent investigation by the Cornucopia Institute, I'm going to be a lot more picky: The food and agriculture nonprofit found that most non-organic veggie burgers currently on the market are made with the chemical hexane, an EPA-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin.

In order to meet the demands of health-conscious consumers, manufacturers of soy-based fake meat like to make their products have as little fat as possible. The cheapest way to do this is by submerging soybeans in a bath of hexane to separate the oil from the protein. Says Cornucopia Institute senior researcher Charlotte Vallaeys, "If a non-organic product contains a soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or texturized vegetable protein, you can be pretty sure it was made using soy beans that were made with hexane."

If you've heard about hexane before, it was likely in the context of gasoline—the air pollutant is also a byproduct of gas refining. But in 2007, grain processors were responsible for two-thirds of our national hexane emissions. Hexane is hazardous in the factory, too: Workers who have been exposed to it have developed both skin and nervous system disorders. Troubling, then, that the FDA does not monitor or regulate hexane residue in foods. More worrisome still: According to the report, "Nearly every major ingredient in conventional soy-based infant formula is hexane extracted."

The Cornucopia Institute found that a number of popular veggie burgers were made with hexane. The list (pdf, page 37, and below) is longer than you might think:


 

World Bank to Fund Giant New Coal Plant

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 7:32 AM EDT

The World Bank yesterday approved a $3.75 billion loan to South African public utility Eskom to fund what will become the world's seventh-largest coal plant—a move that has frustrated many who have pushed for the development bank to start taking greenhouse gas emissions into account in its funding decisions.

The US abstained from the vote, along with Norway, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Italy. The US treasury actually proposed guidelines for multilateral development bank lending several months ago that would encourage lending to favor low-carbon energy sources. This move, however, clearly does not adhere to those guidelines. The US said in a statement that it would not actively oppose the loan, citing the country's "pressing energy needs," but said the bank should in the future not support coal-fired projects "without a plan to ensure there is no net increase in carbon emissions."

Peter Goldmark, director of Environmental Defense Fund’s climate and air program, called the decision "a missed opportunity" to move away from fossil-fuel generated energy and instead push the country toward cleaner sources. Plenty of environmental and anti-poverty groups who have been pushing the bank to improve in this area expressed outrage at yesterday's decision.

The decision highlights ongoing tensions surrounding the World Bank and other multilateral development banks and their continued funding of dirty energy projects. Despite the fact that climate changed caused by the build up of greenhouse gases will hurt those in the developing world the most, the banks tend to pay little or no attention to the carbon footprint of energy projects in funding decisions. The World Bank and other multilateral development banks and export credit agencies have directed $37 billion to the construction or expansion of 88 coal-fired power plants since 1994, according to an Environmental Defense Fund study released last year. Another $60 billion from private funders and local governments has also been provided to dirty power projects. It is estimated that those 88 plants will spit 791 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday April 9

| Fri Apr. 9, 2010 6:36 AM EDT

This is Africa: Celebrities rush to help the poor in Africa, even Naomi Campbell.

End of an Era: Obama's healthcare reform is the last brick in Roosevelt's wall.

Rarely Seen: New list shows world's rarest of rare species. [LiveScience]

No Love Lost: James Lovelock says climate change will help Earth cleanse itself of humans.

Dead Man Talking: In Utah, a prisoner chooses firing squad over bungled lethal injection.

Heart Matters: Men's and women's hearts look different, but only when sick. [LA Times]

So Sue Me: Minnesota's governor is the latest to sue Obama over healthcare.