Blue Marble - September 2010

How Do You ID the Body of a Border Crosser?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that so far this year, the bodies of 170 border crossers have been found in Pima County, Arizona. That means 2010's body count might break recent records: By the end of 2007, 218 bodies had been found.

Of the 170 bodies that have turned up so far this year, two thirds were anonymous. The identification of migrants' corpses is the subject of Andi McDaniel's "The Juan Doe Problem" in the September/October 2010 issue of Mother Jones. McDaniel writes:

A dead body without a name can't be buried, not in good conscience, at least, until efforts to identify it seem completely hopeless. And each person who deals with border bodies has a different definition of hopeless. That's the Juan Doe problem.

McDaniel spent time with the people who attempt to put names to border crossers' remains—which are often little more than piles of bones by the time they are found. She hung out with border agents who recover corpses in the desert, talked to technicians at the office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, and visited the cemetery that is the final resting place for unidentified bodies.

McDaniel also interviewed Chelsey Juarez, a UC-Santa Cruz grad student in physical anthropology who, for the past several years, has been analyzing teeth from Mexico to figure out how their chemical makeup varies by region. She's used her data to create a map, which she hopes medical examiners will one day use for clues to where unidentified crossers might have come from.

Read "The Juan Doe Problem" here, and check out the accompanying photoessay by Matt Nager here.

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Do 'Hypoallergenic' Products Really Cause Fewer Allergies?

| Mon Sep. 20, 2010 2:30 AM PDT

Since I have lots of allergies, and my skin is prone to bouts of itchiness, I've always chosen soaps and lotions labeled "hypoallergenic." That label means they won't cause me to have an allergic reaction, right?

Wrong! Siobhan O'Connor, author of the new book No More Dirty Looks: The Truth About Your Beauty Products and the Ultimate Guide to Safe and Clean Cosmetics, recently clued me in that the label 'hypoallergenic' is virtually meaningless. "Unless the product makes a medical claim, the definition of 'hypoallergenic' is entirely up to the company that makes the product," she says. But allergies are a medical problem, so isn't the term "hypoallergenic" a medical claim? Not according to the FDA, which has this to say on its site on the issue:

There are no Federal standards or definitions that govern the use of the term "hypoallergenic." The term means whatever a particular company wants it to mean. Manufacturers of cosmetics labeled as hypoallergenic are not required to submit substantiation of their hypoallergenicity claims to FDA.

(A word of clarification about the word "cosmetics": It refers to any product that you put on your skin—soap, shampoo, lotion, etc.—not just makeup.)

The site is dated October 18, 2000, but labeling ruling hasn't changed since then. "Dermatologist tested" is also an unregulated claim.

I decided to ask cosmetic companies how they define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested." Of the seven major manufacturers that I asked, only three—Johnson's (the baby products division of Johnson & Johnson's), Colgate-Palmolive, and Novartis—responded. A Novartis publicist said the company's Keri Basic Essentials lotion qualifies as hypoallergenic "because it is fragrance free and contains ingredients such as vitamins E and Aloe Vera." She also cautioned that despite the label, "we always suggest trying a small amount of any new product before applying all over to ensure they do not have a reaction." 

Publicists from Johnson's and Colgate-Palmolive assured me that external dermatologists tested their products, and that they used ingredients that had low allergen potential. But when I asked who the dermatologists were, and what standards they used to do determine an ingredient's allergic potential, neither company would cough up the goods. Check out the frustrating email exchange I had with a publicity rep from Johnson's:

Me: How does Johnson define the terms "hypoallergenic" and "dermatologist tested"? Are the dermatologists who test products in-house, or independent?

Rep: JOHNSON'S scientists work with independent dermatologists and testing facilities in the evaluation of our products. To ensure the product is hypoallergenic, JOHNSON'S carefully chooses ingredients known to have a low potential for allergy and then further evaluates the final formula to ensure that the product has a low potential to cause allergy.

Me: Any way you could give me the names of the independent dermatologists or testing facilities?

Rep: I'm sorry but J&J does not disclose that info. Anything else you need?

Me: Does the company disclose its standards for determining whether a product is hypoallergenic?

Rep: No, they don't but regarding that, they have this to say: JOHNSON'S only selects ingredients that have low allergy risks and performs rigorous safety evaluations on the final product.

Right. Back to square one. Next I consulted veteran dermatologist Patricia K. Farris, a clinical assistant professor at Tulane University who has more than 20 years of experience in her field, about her understanding of the term "dermatologist tested." She wrote to me in an email, "I have actually asked this question myself many times but nobody seems to know the answer as to how they make these claims 'dermatologist tested' or even 'dermatologist recommended.' I personally do not know of any criteria that need to be met to claim dermatology tested or dermatologist recommended."

Stacy Malkan of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a coalition of groups dedicated to reforming the cosmetics industry, says that misconceptions about the meaning of these terms are common. "People think 'hypoallergenic' means there are no allergens," she says. "That is just not the case." Malkan also recommends that consumers be wary of the term "organic," since the food rules don't apply to cosmetics. "You can't call a food 'organic' unless it meets USDA standards, but a lot of cosmetics on the market are labeled 'organic' and they have all kinds of synthetic ingredients," she says.

The good news is that new legislation aims to update the FDA's rules for the cosmetics industry, some of which have not changed since 1938. The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, introduced in July by Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), would require companies to disclose all the chemicals in their products—including fragrance, about which companies are notoriously secretive. It would also require safety assesments and the phasing out of ingredients suspected of causing cancer and reproductive harm. Unfortunately, the new legislation would not crack down on labeling claims, but ingredient transparency would certainly be a step in the right direction, says Malkan.

Siobhan O'Connor says she'd love to see the new legislation pass but is worried that lobbying by the mighty industry group Personal Care Products Council will squash it. "You can't underestimate how powerful and well-funded the PCPC is," she says. "The last time legislation like this came along, it went away very quickly and quietly." Sure enough, the PCPC is already on the case, claiming that the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010 is "not based on credible and established scientific principles."

Want to learn more about the cosmetic industry's dirty secrets? O'Connor's book is a great place to start. Malkan has written another one called Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. And the Story of Stuff Project produced this eight-minute video that really pissed off the PCPC.

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BP's Well Almost Dead, But Oil Lives On

| Fri Sep. 17, 2010 2:15 PM PDT

BP and federal spill responders announced last night that the first relief well has successfully intercepted the leaking well that gushed from the bottom of the Gulf for nearly three months. BP's main well has been contained with a cap since July, but the relief well was billed as the only way to finally and completely close the well and bring an end to a disaster that released 4.1 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

National Incident Commander Admiral Thad Allen announced late Thursday night that the relief well had tapped into the leaking well, which will now allow drillers to cement the well and complete the so-called bottom-kill operation. That operation is expected to be completed on Saturday, BP said. The first well was expected to be completed in mid-July, but between weather delays and other setbacks, it took much longer.

But as the nightmare well meets its end, new research is indicating that much of the oil is remains in the Gulf. Research published this week in Science indicates that there may be four separate plumes of hydrocarbons under the water. David Valentine, a professor of microbial geochemistry in the Department of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara estimated that there's "about a million barrels of oil" contained in these plumes (approximately a quarter of the total amount of oil spilled in the Gulf). And there's about two times as much gas in the plumes, said the researchers. (I reported more on the additional problems that all that gas creates in the Gulf in this July piece. Valentin also makes an appearance in Julia Whitty's cover story this month on the BP spill.)

The research also suggests that bacteria in the Gulf are consuming the propane and ethane released from the well faster than they're consuming more complex hydrocarbons like methane and oil. Propane and ethane were the "primary drivers of microbial respiration," the research team found, accounting for up to 70 percent of the oxygen depletion in the undersea plumes. (As the microbes feast on the hydrocarbons, they must use oxygen in the water, which is why the oxygen depletion levels are used to gauge their activity.)  This puts a bit of a damper on reports released a few weeks ago claiming that Gulf microbes were eating oil at record rates.

This also comes after reports earlier this week that scientists have found oil accumulating on the Gulf floor and that new waves of oil have washed ashore in Louisiana—still more evidence that more of the oil is lurking below the surface than rosy reports last month had indicated.

The GOP: Defending Your Right to Life, Liberty, and Inefficient Lighting

| Fri Sep. 17, 2010 12:40 PM PDT

Almost as if on cue, Republicans today signaled the kind of leadership they plan to display on energy matters if they take back the House in November. Following a push from conservative pundits, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) introduced legislation to preserve your freedom of choice—when it comes to light bulbs at least.

Barton, who could potentially reprise his role as chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee next year if the GOP wins the House, unveiled the "Better Use of Light Bulbs Act" on Friday. Michael Burgess (R-Tex.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) are cosponsoring the measure, which would repeal the phase-out of incandescent bulbs set to begin next year. The phase-out to more energy-efficient lighting was included in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The GOP lawmakers claim the looming ban on the old-school bulbs has caused massive layoffs in the bulb sector, which might be a problem, were it true. "The unanticipated consequence of the '07 act—Washington-mandated layoffs in the middle of a desperate recession—is one of many examples of what happens when politicians and activists think they know better than consumers and workers,” Barton said in a statement. "From the health insurance you’re allowed to have, to the car you can drive, to the light bulbs you can buy, Washington is making too many decisions that are better left to people who work for their own paychecks and earn their own living."

In his statement, Burgess claims that "thousands of American jobs have been shipped overseas as a direct consequence of this light bulb provision." But Barton and Burgess ignore the fact that there aren't a whole lot of jobs making lightbulbs in the US any more, anyway; the US lost the competitive upper-hand on manufacturing the bulbs long ago. The Washington Post had a good piece earlier this month about the closure of the last General Electric bulb plant in the US. While the article does place a significant amount of blame on the energy bill for the decline in jobs, it's worth noting that there are only 200 jobs left at this plant, and that the US forfeited leadership on this front years ago by failing to adapt to changes in technology. It also fails to note the challenges that the US faces in competing with cheap bulbs from China. Reversing the phase-out isn't going to change that.

It's also worth knocking down, yet again, the fears the GOP keeps raising about mercury in the compact fluorescent bulbs. The amount of mercury in the bulbs is not actually that big of a problem‚—whereas the amount of mercury released into the environment by burning coal to power old, inefficient bulbs is a serious concern, one that Republicans have never seemed too worried about.

Last week, National Review blogger Reihan Salam responded to my initial post on the right's bulb crusade by mostly considering the relative aesthetics of incandescent and compact fluorescent bulbs. I have no problem acknowledging that people might not like CFLs as much as older bulbs, and at least his response doesn't resort to ginning up fears of an economic doomsday due to the bulb switch. But Salam's post misses my main point, one that Barton and his colleagues again illustrated so well today, which is that if the GOP is in power next year, the public can expect them to spend time on things like this. This is, of course, time that would be better-spent focusing on restoring the American manufacturing base, creating jobs, and making our economy stronger and more efficient. Instead, GOP leadership plans to waste energy (pun intended) on gimmicks like lightbulb choice.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday September 17

| Fri Sep. 17, 2010 11:08 AM PDT

News on the environment, health, and energy from our other blogs.

Math Fail: Many people don't like health care reform, but few want it repealed.

Comeback: The Gulf might be bouncing back from BP oil spill faster than expected.

Lose-Lose: Number of uninsured is rising along with health care premiums.

Terror Threats: Why are environmentalists thought more dangerous than tea partiers?

 

The Feds' Oil-Spill Number Games

| Fri Sep. 17, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

Initial government estimates about the size of the Gulf oil spill were low—way, way low. The number the government repeated for four weeks, about 5,000 barrels per day, was about one-twelfth of the actual rate oil was seeping from the well. So what went wrong with the government's math? It's an awfully good question, one that watchdog groups want answered. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which represents whistleblower scientists at government agencies, announced Thursday that it is filing suit against the Obama administration to gain access to the paper trail on the government's early assessments. The group says government officials are "hiding the memos and e-mails behind official scientific assessments of the size of the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico."

At the height of the spill, 62,000 barrels of oil gushed from the hole daily, the federal government flow rate team concluded in August. That's a far cry from BP's first estimate—1,000 barrels—and from the government's first initial estimate of just 5,000 barrels per day. They later increased the official estimate to 12,000 to 19,000 at the end of May.

Yet as I reported shortly after that range was released, the actual documentation that the US Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Interior, released a week later made it clear that even this rate was a low-end estimate. But Marcia McNutt, the director of the USGS and chair of the Flow Rate Technical Group, told reporters that this was the best estimate available at the time.

PEER says the administration is violating the Freedom of Information Act by not releasing the requested documentation, which includes the technical data supporting the estimates about the spill size, directives from agency heads, and correspondence between officials and scientists.

PEER alleges that McNutt "omitted the fact that these were minimum estimates (deleting phrases such as 'at least' and 'range of lower bounds') and did not mention completed estimates that were much higher." The group also alleges that the government "withheld the actual technical report and instead released only a summary that [McNutt] wrote" and "directed that none of the Technical Group documents was subject to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and that group members should not disclose any materials."

A number of groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Greenpeace, and the Center for Biological Diversity have sought the technical documents and correspondence related to the flow rate, to no avail. While some related documents are posted on the USGS site, Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, says the government has been "stalling us for the last couple months" on specific documents and is just posting "filler" online. "We're looking for information about what was shared with the public, what wasn't, and why," said Ruch.

The government has also faced criticism for claiming that three-quarters of the oil in the Gulf was "gone" in early August. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has come under fire for refusing to release the data on which those claims were based. (The agency later said that the documentation for the claims would not be available for months.) And the supposed independent experts who peer-reviewed NOAA'S report? They say they never saw the final document before it was released.

The continued lack of transparency about how much oil was spilled, where it went, and what the government knew about both those figures over the course of the disaster has alarmed a number of environmental advocates. "There is no scientifically, peer-reviewed data or studies on how much oil was spilled or how much oil is left," said Bill Snape, senior counsel at the Center for Biological Diversity. "We still have no idea. We're guessing."

Special Report: Check out our in-depth investigation of BP's crimes in the Gulf, "BP's Deep Secrets."

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Yep, Still Getting Warmer

| Thu Sep. 16, 2010 1:31 PM PDT

The "BREAKING: World Getting Hotter!" news shouldn't be, well, news anymore. And for people who already tuned in on global warming, it's not. But considering we still have the senior senator from Oklahoma insisting that the planet is actually getting cooler, perhaps it's worth noting the latest data indicates that the first eight months of 2010 are now tied with the same period in 1998 for the warmest on record.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Wednesday that the period of January through August 2010 is tied with the first eight months of 1998 for highest combined land and ocean surface temperatures worldwide. The combined temperature was 1.21 degrees Fahrenheit (or 0.67 degrees Celsius) above the average for the 20th century.

The period of June to August alone qualifies as the second warmest on record (1998 was the warmest)—which many people around the world can attest to, given the major heat waves this summer. As NOAA notes, "Warmer-than-average conditions dominated land areas of the globe." Eastern Europe, eastern Canada and parts of eastern Asia all experienced warmer weather, though other regions like Australia, central Russia and southern South America, experienced "cooler-than-average" temperatures.

While climate skeptics like Sen. Jim Inhofe were happy to trot out record snowfall over the winter as evidence that the planet isn't warming, they haven't had a whole lot to say about the summer heat. Of course, climate scientists would point out that no single period of weeks or months is indicative of whether or not the climate is changing. This is about climate, after all, not weather. But the latest data does fit into the long-term warming pattern that scientists have repeatedly observed.

Counting the Avian Victims of the BP Spill

| Thu Sep. 16, 2010 9:23 AM PDT

The US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Wednesday that it will be posting regular updates on the species of birds that have died as a result of the Gulf oil spill. Conservation groups have sought this information in the months since the spill, but previous reports from federal government biologists have only tallied the total number of birds—they haven't provided a species-by-species break down.

This information is crucial to determining the true extent of the ecological damage caused by the spill, argue groups like the National Wildlife Federation, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the detailed reports last month. There are some birds that conservationists are more worried about in the region—birds like the brown pelican, which was just taken off the endangered species list last year, and the piping plover, which is currently on the list.

The first detailed tally shows that 568 brown pelicans have been collected, 376 of them dead. The only bird with a higher tally is the laughing gull, of which 1,885 have been brought in, 1,591 of them dead. In a bit of good news, only one piping plover has been found dead so far, according to yesterday's tally.

Yesterday's release only includes the species count for 4,676 birds, which is less than the total brought in so far. The last report from the Deepwater Horizon Response stated that 8,009 birds had been collected so far. Georgia Parham, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said there is some delay in releasing the more detailed reports, as it takes time to verify the species. The agency expects to release new updates on the confirmed species count every Wednesday, said Parham.

The species figures are crucial to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which the government is conducting now to determine how much the spill damaged the gulf—and how much BP will have pay. "Ensuring accurate, scientifically valid information that describes bird impacts from this incident will be an important part of the government’s overall Natural Resource Damage Assessment," the agency said on Wednesday.

BP Fund Czar Gets Realistic About Process

| Thu Sep. 16, 2010 8:11 AM PDT

Gulf spill fund administrator Kenneth Feinberg is finding out that he might have to be more flexible than he he previously thought when it comes to doling out BP's money. Feinberg, a master mediator who faces a major challenge in administering BP's $20 billion spill fund, has had to shift his position on a few issues in the past weeks: how quickly he can actually distribute compensation and how many people may be eligible for funds.

Last week, Feinberg's office admitted that his promise to process individual claims within 48 hours and business claims in seven days was overly optimistic. The center now says that processing claims will take as much time as is "necessary and appropriate."

The center is seeing some pick-up in their processing times in the three weeks since Feinberg took over. As of Wednesday evening, 27 percent of the 62,983 claims have been approved for payment. And the center is doing better than BP—as ProPublica notes, "Feinberg has paid out about $151 million in claims in a little over three weeks, while BP paid out approximately $400 million in about three and a half months."

Feinberg has also indicated that he might be more flexible on the issue of proximity to the spill. As I reported last week, businesses who were far from the oil but still impacted by the decline in tourism have complained that the proximity standard will leave them out in the cold. As the Florida Independent reported yesterday, Feinberg may be reassessing:

Speaking Tuesday to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Feinberg said that while he remains skeptical of claims from alleged victims far from the spill, his thinking was changing, and that in the interest of avoiding additional lawsuits, he would try to at least meet [Florida Attorney General Bill] McCollum part-way.
Although plans have not yet been finalized, Feinberg said claimants such as hotels in Miami and Jacksonville should be able to submit their claims for review without formally filing them. Then, someone — or perhaps a dedicated committee — from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility would review the claim and try to come up a with way to resolve it, either through the facility or some separate arrangement akin to the fund Feinberg created to compensate the real estate industry.

The New York Times has more today about Feinberg's evolution on the fund. Basically, he's acknowledging one of the major complaints from critics—that writing people out of eligibility for the fund leads to the same lengthy litigation the fund was designed to avoid.

Clean Energy Advocates Try to Keep the RES Hope Alive

| Thu Sep. 16, 2010 5:00 AM PDT

The Senate is definitely not going to pass a renewable electricity standard before senators leave Washington this month. But Majority Leader Harry Reid gave some reason for hope that it might stand a chance in a lame-duck session post-election, noting at an energy forum earlier this month that an RES is "absolutely" under consideration.

Renewables advocates aren't backing off the subject. On Wednesday, a coalition of clean energy companies, trade groups, environmentalists, and unions released an "action statement" calling for the Senate to pass the RES included in the energy bill Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) sponsored last year. That bill would require utilities to produce 15 percent of power from renewable sources by 2021.

Back when the Energy and Natural Resources Committee passed that bill in June 2009, renewable energy advocates lamented that the standard in that bill is actually less ambitious than the path that the industry is already on. Now, while the members of the RES Alliance for Jobs acknowledge that the Bingaman standard "isn’t perfect," they argue that "it is the right RES to pass as a starting point at this moment of acute urgency."

Here's the official statement, signed by 21 companies, unions, and trade groups:

The US simply cannot afford to end the year without a national renewable electricity standard. Key renewable industries are seeing significant drops in manufacturing and major analysts and fund managers are downgrading the US's renewable energy market potential. Meanwhile, investment overseas – particularly in China – is skyrocketing.
The RES has strong, bipartisan support in the American public and clear bipartisan support in the US Senate, and will protect tens of thousands of jobs across the US. The RES passed in 2009 by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee isn’t perfect, but it is the right RES to pass as a starting point at this moment of acute urgency.
We urge the Senate to move forward on that RES as soon as possible this fall, to protect the American clean energy jobs we have, provide a long-term signal to manufacturers looking to make significant capital investments and restore America’s competitive position in this crucial industry.