Blue Marble - May 2010

Could a Common Sunscreen Ingredient Speed Cancer Development?

| Mon May 24, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

I could really use some better sunscreen. Red-headed, freckled, and ridiculously pale (think: a few shades lighter than your average slice of Wonder Bread), I burn at the slightest suggestion of a sunny day, even though I religiously slather on the SPF one-bazillion goop. Last year, I wrote a piece for Mother Jones about how sunscreen manufacturers' claims (All day protection! Sweat proof! SPF through the roof!) rarely measure up to the products' performance. So when I heard that the Environmental Working Group was releasing its 2010 list of best and worst sunscreens, I had hope: Would this be the year sunscreen manufacturers finally figured out how to save me from turning into a Twizzler after 10 minutes of yard work?

You'd think so, since according to the new report, 1 in 6 sunscreens is now labeled with an SPF of above 50, compared to 1 in 8 last year. Sounds like good news, since higher SPF means more protection, right? Not really, says EWG senior analyst Sean Gray. The difference between an SPF 50 product and and SPF 110 product is minuscule. Gray believes the sky-high SPF labels can actually be dangerous. "We have studies that show that people who use the higher SPF products don't reapply it," says Gray. "So they end up with more UV exposure overall." (Mother Jones reported on this phenomenon back in the day.)

Another scary new finding: There is preliminary evidence from a recent FDA animal study that a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, present in about 40 percent of sunscreens, may accelerate the development of skin cancer. Researchers applied sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate to one group of hairless mice and sunscreens without the additive to another group. When exposed to UV radiation, the retinyl palmitate group developed lesions and tumors significantly faster than than the non-retinyl palmitate group. What's frightening is that people see "vitamin" and "think it's good for them," says Gray.

So which sunscreens are best? EWG says so-called "mineral blockers," which generally use nanoparticles of zinc or titanium oxide to block UV light, are safer than "chemical blockers," since they protect against both UVA and UVB rays (UVB cause burns, but UVA rays have been linked to skin cancer) and don't become unstable in sunlight. Are nanoparticles completely safe? "All the research we’ve looked at suggests they don't penetrate the skin, but there is still debate about that," says Gray. If you do choose a chemical blocker, choose one with avobenzone, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Stay away from oxybenzone, which only filters out UVB light, and could also disrupt hormonal function.

The bright side: The FDA expects to debut its long-awaited new sunscreen labeling system—which will require manufacturers to include information about both UVA and UVB protection and ban claims of SPFs higher than 50—this coming October.

Here's a list of EWG's best and worst sunscreens of 2010:

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BP Still Using Dirty Dispersant in the Gulf

| Sat May 22, 2010 12:35 PM EDT

BP is continuing to use a toxic oil dispersant in the Gulf, despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency directed the company to find a less-dangerous chemical to use on the spill. The company said yesterday that it could not identify a better alternative.

Environmental advocates cheered Thursday when the EPA demanded that BP ditch the dirty dispersant it has been spreading in the Gulf. EPA gave the company 24 hours to find a "less toxic alternative" and 72 hours to begin using it. But BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told reporters Friday afternoon that the company couldn't identify a new product and continues to use Corexit, its brand of choice.

Corexit, said Suttles, "is the most widely used dispersant in the world for this type of activity." It also happens to be manufactured by a company, Nalco, with close ties to the oil industry. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans has more:

BP spokesman Scott Dean said Friday that BP had replied with a letter "that outlines our findings that none of the alternative products on the EPA's National Contingency Plan Product Schedule list meets all three criteria specified in yesterday's directive for availability, toxicity and effectiveness."
Dean noted that "Corexit is an EPA pre-approved, effective, low-toxicity dispersant that is readily available, and we continue to use it."
He did not directly address widely broadcast news reports that more than 100,000 gallons of an alternative dispersant chemical call Sea-Brat 4 was stockpiled near Houston and available for application.

The EPA has a list of other approved dispersants that could be used in the Gulf, many of which are less toxic than Corexit. BP has already dumped at least 670,000 gallons of Corexit at the spill site.

Will the EPA force BP to switch dispersants? That remains unclear. On Friday, EPA spokesperson Adora Andy indicated to ABC News that the agency has not outright barred BP from using their brand of choice. "It's not that Corexit is banned," she said. "It's not that they have to stop using it because they're using it right now. But it's just that they need to switch over."

Will the EPA take charge and force BP to change? Sure doesn't seem like the oil giant is going to do it without some more forceful demands.

UPDATE: Here's BP's letter responding to the EPA directive.

BP Backtracks on Spill Estimate

| Fri May 21, 2010 5:26 PM EDT

After weeks of misleading the public about how much oil is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico, BP is now walking back from the 5,000-barrel-per-day figure, calling it their "best estimate" but downplaying its significance.

"That was within a wide range," BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles told reporters Friday afternoon. "We've said this since the beginning, there's a huge amount of uncertainty around that number."

Outside experts have put the spill rate as high as 95,000 barrels per day, or nearly 4 million gallons. The numbers BP offered this week about how much they are currently siphoning from the site also seem to indicate that the total is much higher than 5,000.

The difference in a single day is significant, but it's a radical difference when considering how much oil has spewed into the Gulf in total so far. If you believe BP's estimates, 6.9 million gallons of oil have already hemorrhaged into the Gulf; if you believe the most dramatic outside estimates, the figure is likely closer to 131.6 million gallons.

BP has made every effort to downplay the size of the spill so far, with CEO Tony Hayward last week assuring folks that the spill was "relatively tiny" compared to a "very big ocean."

Meanwhile, BP's reps have been fighting off media coverage on the scene. A boat chased a CBS news crew off a Louisiana beach last week. Our own Mac McClelland was barred from an oil-slicked beach by a local sheriff today and referred to a BP "liaison."

As many have pointed out, the company has can a very good reason to shield the public from the reality of the spill, as it could save the company millions in court.

The federal government, after weeks of repeating the 5,000-barrel figure, yesterday announced it is forming a Flow Rate Technical Team comprised of experts from the Coast Guard, government agencies, and universities to assess the real rate of flow from the hole.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco defended the administration's use of the 5,000-barrel figure on Thursday: "That number was useful and the best estimate at the time." She said the administration's primary focus had been on the efforts to cap the well, rather than on measuring the flow. Even with this new flow team in place, we might not have an answer from them for a while. U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. Mary Landry told reporters Friday that they plan to take time in assessing the figure, and have it peer-reviewed. "This team is not going to be rushed to come up with a figure too quickly," said Landry.

You Know What Else is Un-American, Rand Paul?

| Fri May 21, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Newly minted Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul apparently thinks that criticizing BP for the Gulf spill is "really un-American." Because, you know, "sometimes accidents happen."

You know what's un-American? British Petroleum. You know what else is un-American? Operating your drilling rig in US waters under flag of the Marshall Islands so you can skirt Coast Guard oversight.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 21

| Fri May 21, 2010 6:09 AM EDT

News on health and the environment from our other blogs.

Gay ID: Andrew Sullivan thinks gay isn't about your sex life, it's your identity.

Doing Time: Sexual predators can remain incarcerated, even after they've served their sentence.

Slick Chart: According to this chart, oil demand will outstrip supplies very soon.

Slippery Shores: MoJo reporter in Louisiana literally steps into the BP spill.

DNA Test: The federal government is looking into DIY DNA "testing" firms.

Tip Top: JPMorgan clarifies its position on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Animal Attraction: A lovely chart of the states where bestiality isn't illegal but gay marriage is.

Disaster Vacation: Katrina-themed tours of New Orleans are selling but reconstruction is lacking.

 

Do We Really Need 2.5 Parking Spaces for Every Car?

| Thu May 20, 2010 7:51 PM EDT

Four states around the Great Lakes have an average of 2.5 parking-lot spaces per car, and that doesn't even include parking structures or spots on the street, a new study finds. Purdue University researchers who surveyed Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin found that parking lots take up an incredible 5 percent of urban land in those states.

To people who regularly waste entire weekend mornings looking for parking (like many of us in the Bay Area do), this doesn't sound so bad. But parking lots take a toll on the environment: By contributing to the urban heat island effect, parking lots can make cities hotter. They can conduct toxic runoff into streams and lakes, leading to poor water quality. They can also raise the temperature of waterways, which is bad news for plants and animals whose survival depends on cool enough water.

Discovery News interviewed UCLA parking expert Donald Shoup about how to solve this problem:

"Parking is so heavily regulated in terms of minimum spaces," said Shoup. Typically city or county regulations require a certain minimum number of spaces per square feet of floor space of business. The type of business matters too.

Restaurants, for instance, require more space than an accountant's office. But it's a minimum, not a maximum number of spaces, and there is a tendency for businesses to lean towards more spaces, since no one wants to lose a customer because of lack of parking.

As a result, cities have no way of knowing how many parking spaces there are, Shoup said.

Several things can be done, however, to keep parking lots from taking over, he said. One is to set maximums for parking spaces. Another is to allow businesses and residential areas to share parking areas, so that a bank, for instance, uses the parking during the day and a bar uses it at night.

Street parking obviously makes use of already-existing paved areas, but there's not enough of it in most cities, and endless driving around searching for a spot wastes gas and creates carbon emissions. One solution: this phone app, which shows you the nearest available parking spaces. Any other parking-lot proliferation solutions you can think of, readers?

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BP's Math Problem

| Thu May 20, 2010 2:26 PM EDT

BP has been telling the world that only 5,000 barrels of oil are leaking out of its well in the bottom of the Gulf each day, despite the fact that outside experts believe the correct figure is probably more like 95,000 barrels. BP also says that the pipe inserted into the well to siphon oil to the surface is drawing about a fifth of the oil. As of their last announcement, that was about 1,000 barrels of oil per day.

But now BP says that actually it's siphoning 5,000 barrels per day—in other words, the total amount of oil the company says is spilling into the sea. But the live-feed of the spill site that was made available today clearly shows a whole lot of oil leaking into the Gulf.

So does that mean BP is acknowledging that the spill rate is much, much higher? Are they admitting that they've been lying to us for the past month about how bad the spill actually is? Or is BP just bad at math?

What Does the Gov't Know About the Spill Size?

| Thu May 20, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

BP is still using spill estimates that outside experts believe grossly underestimate the size of the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead of the 5,000 barrel figure BP has given, they believe the spill rate may be closer to 95,000 barrels, or 4 million gallons, every day. The Obama administration has so far echoed those figures, though they've now organized a task force to get an official government estimate.

But the watchdogs at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and Greenpeace think the government already knows more than it's letting on about the size of the spill. Both the White House and agencies have had access to the live video feeds of the spill site for some time, while the video was only made available to the public and the press today. On Thursday, the groups sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration soliciting all the video, documents, and other records related to the spill and the use of dispersant chemicals.

"We'd like to know what they really know," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan told Mother Jones. "We want to know if what government officials are saying is the same thing that they have had sitting on their desks."

Obama's top science adviser, John Holdren, said last week, "We really do not know if it is 5,000 barrels (of crude oil) a day, or 10,000, or 2,000." But Damon Moglen, global warming campaign director at Greenpeace, says that there's no way the government is in the dark about how much is actually spilling. "Why, between BP and the government, don't we have a serious, reasonable or realistic assessment of how big the spill is?" said Moglen. "What's going on down there is much more serious than what BP is telling us and what the government is telling us."

"We can't pretend this away by underestimating the numbers on what's going on down there," Moglen continued. The groups have asked for the FOIA requests to be met on an expedited basis, in the next 10 days.

The live feed of the blowout site was made available today, a month into the spill and after weeks of lobbying by members of Congress and the press. The live feed is now running on the websites of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the House Energy and Commerce, and the Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming.

EPA Demands BP Ditch Dirty Dispersants

| Thu May 20, 2010 9:43 AM EDT

The Environmental Protection agency has finally responded to increasing concern about the chemicals BP is spreading in the Gulf of Mexico. On Wednesday night, the EPA demanded that the company start using less-toxic alternatives in clean-up efforts.

The Washington Post has the scoop. According to the Post's sources, the EPA gave BP 24 hours to pick a less toxic brand of dispersant, and the company must start using a new product within 72 hours of submitting a list of alternatives. From the Post:

"Dispersants have never been used in this volume before," said an administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision hasn't been formally announced. "This is a large amount of dispersants being used, larger amounts than have ever been used, on a pipe that continues to leak oil and that BP is still trying to cap."

This is a major move, reflecting growing concerns from environmentalists and marine scientists about the potential damage that these chemicals might be doing in the Gulf. Last weekend, the EPA approved the use of dispersants at the spill site—a method of dealing with an oil spill that has never been used before. BP has already used more than 600,000 gallons of Corexit, the company’s dispersant of choice, despite the fact that there are less-toxic options on the market.

The EPA is posting updates on dispersant monitoring on its website. I'm still waiting on an official statement from the EPA about this, and will update when it is available.

UPDATE: Here's the directive from EPA to BP calling for a less-toxic dispersant. The agency also said Thursday that it would begin posting the monitoring data they are gathering on dispersants on the BP spill website.

Why Is BP Still In Charge of the Spill Site?

| Thu May 20, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

With the Gulf spill now one month in, some lawmakers and environmentalists are starting to question why BP is still in charge of the containment and clean-up effort. The company’s attempts to cut off the spill have failed. The chemicals BP is spreading in the Gulf might be creating entirely new problems. And independent estimates of the spill indicate that the company is grossly underestimating the size of the disaster.

So why is BP still running the show? The government has launched an unprecedented response. But when it comes to crucial issues of control and decision-making, it seems like the oil giant is still in the driver's seat.

Let's start with the size of the spill. Outside estimates have put the volume as high as 4 million gallons of oil per day, based on analysis of video that BP finally released in the past week. Video released Tuesday only added to those concerns. But BP has only been releasing a limited amount of footage, at the demand of Congress. (BP American president Lamar McKay told a House panel on Wednesday that the higher number is "theoretically possible," but said he doesn't "think anyone who's been working on this thinks it's that high.") The Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, are still using the 5,000-barrel-per-day figure.

Rep. Ed Markey, chair of the House Select Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, has called on the Coast Guard to force BP to relinquish control over the spill site. Markey has also pushed BP to post a live-streaming video of the spill that outside experts and the public can view, which the company consented to Wednesday evening.

"BP thinks this is their ocean, so they should be able to control the information," Markey said during a congressional briefing on the spill. "It's BP’s spill, but it’s America's ocean."