Blue Marble - December 2010

What's In the Water?

| Thu Dec. 30, 2010 2:24 PM EST

The last time I wrote about hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical known to cause myriad health problems, it was in a piece on soldiers who say they were exposed to it while guarding a water treatment facility in Iraq. But the chemical, made famous by Erin Brockovich, is also turning up in drinking water sources around the United States.

A recent report from the Environmental Working Group found the chemical in the tap water of 31 out of 35 cities it tested. This is a major issue, as exposure through drinking water has been linked to stomach and gastrointestinal cancers in both humans and animals. From the report:

The highest levels were in Norman, Okla.; Honolulu, Hawaii; and Riverside, Calif. In all, water samples from 25 cities contained the toxic metal at concentrations above the safe maximum recently proposed by California regulators.
The National Toxicology Program has concluded that hexavalent chromium (also called chromium-6) in drinking water shows “clear evidence of carcinogenic activity” in laboratory animals, increasing the risk of gastrointestinal tumors. In September 2010, a draft toxicological review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) similarly found that hexavalent chromium in tap water is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

The EPA responded quickly to the new report; Administrator Lisa Jackson met with a group of 10 senators about the issue and released a statement outlining the EPA's next steps:

Today, I am announcing a series of actions that the EPA will take over the coming days to address chromium-6 in our drinking water. It is clear that the first step is to understand the prevalence of this problem. While the EWG study was informative, it only provided a snapshot in time. EPA will work with local and state officials to get a better picture of exactly how widespread this problem is. In the meantime, EPA will issue guidance to all water systems in the country to help them develop monitoring and sampling programs specifically for chromium-6. We will also offer significant technical assistance to the communities cited in the EWG report with the highest levels of chromium-6 to help ensure they quickly develop an effective chromium-6 specific monitoring program.

This is good news, but could take some time to actually equate to meaningful action. In the meantime, what can people do about the chemical? AlterNet put together a helpful list of questions and answers, including how one can find information on the levels of the chemical in their local water system and what to do if your water is contaminated.

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10 Green New Year's Resolutions

| Mon Dec. 27, 2010 6:30 AM EST

I asked MoJo staffers, our Facebook friends, and Econundrums readers to submit their green new year's resolutions. Herewith, in no particular order, ten of my favorites:

1. Actually composting the veggies that melt into mush in the bottom of the veggie drawer instead of holding the bag by one corner and putting it in the trash.  There is something about the grossness factor that just makes it hard to scrape them out of the bag...I compost everything else I should! -Emma L.

2. Finally getting my motorcycle license to save gas this summer! -Lucy W.

3. I just discovered that changing the reflectors on my stovetop cuts boiling time in half. Also, i'm pretty proud of the fact that i always flush my dog's poop. -Giovanna P.

4. I'm gonna use the same water bottle for the rest of my life, I've decided. -Julie A.

5. Get even more creative with our composting. We now have 15,000 earthworms, and for 2011 we are getting our own chickens! -Pogo S.

6. When I'm driving somewhere, I'll leave early so I don't speed, saving gas. -Peter M.

7. I'm going to try not to use more than 10 plastic/brown paper grocery bags in the year, which means always carrying a reusable bag. -Khary B.

8. Save money by making some eco-friendly laundry detergent: 1 cup shaved castille soap, 1/2 cup borax, 1/2 cup washing soda. Use 1 teaspoon, and your clothes smell fresh right out of the laundry. It takes 10 minutes to make! -Leslie D.

9. No more poisonous household cleaners. The best cleaning solution I have ever used is a mixture of vinegar, lemon juice, and salt. That works on almost everything. For tough jobs like bathrooms, just sprinkle a little baking soda, then the spray, watch it fizzle, and voila! -Neeraj U.

10. I just follow my mother's Depression-era dictum: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without! -Meg B.

And as for me? My backyard is priority number one. It's been looking downright feral since the end of the summer. Then there's my bike, which isn't doing anyone any good sitting on the back porch. After yardwork and bike fixing, who knows? Chickens?

What are you going to do for the planet in 2011? Share your resolutions in the comments.

Podcast: What Does the Bible Have To Say About Climate Change?

Wed Dec. 22, 2010 4:56 PM EST

With the collapse of last year's international climate talks in Copenhagen and the resurgence of the Republican Party here in the United States, many observers have begun to doubt whether the world will ever be able to agree on a framework to fight global climate change. Believing that progress is possible, they say, may take a leap of faith.

And that's exactly what some religious groups are offering.

With the holidays around the corner, The Climate Desk Podcast decided to take a closer look at the emerging environmental movement among faith-based communities in the United States, and the considerable disagreement among some denominations, especially evangelicals and born-again Christians, about what the Bible teaches us when it comes to climate change and the environment.

Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes.

This podcast was produced by Erin Chapman, Laura Feeney, Sal Gentile, and Win Rosenfeld of PBS's Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A Transocean Employee on the Deepwater Investigation?

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 11:30 AM EST

The Houston Chronicle's Fuel Fix posted an interesting piece late Tuesday night about a notable conflict of interest in the investigation into the cause of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. The paper cites documents that indicate that a supervisor from Transocean, the rig's owner, has participated in tests on the blowout preventer—a key piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation.

According to the documents, the paper reports that "the Transocean employee has manipulated equipment on the 50-foot-tall, 300-ton blowout preventer, while a government contractor runs it through a battery of tests in New Orleans." More from the article:

The government contracted the forensic analysis firm Det Norske Veritas to run the equipment through tests designed to shed light on why key pipe-cutting and hole-closing components failed to slash through drill pipe and seal off the well hole.
DNV later arranged for Owen McWhorter, onetime subsea supervisor on the Deepwater Horizon, to assist in the testing.
The government instructed DNV to terminate its contract with McWhorter after concerns were raised last week by the Chemical Safety Board, a federal agency also investigating the disaster.
The decision to use the Transocean employee as a consultant appeared to violate a conflict-of-interest provision in the government’s contract with DNV, acknowledged Michael Farber, a senior adviser for the ocean energy bureau, in a letter to the Chemical Safety Board.

Yikes. The piece says the government instructed DNV to remove McWhorter from the project after the conflict was pointed out. The tests they are conducting on the blowout preventer are crucial to figuring out what exactly went wrong on the Deepwater Horizon, since, as the name would imply, this device was supposed to prevent such a disaster from occurring. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the Coast Guard are investigating the causes of the disaster.

As Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) noted in a letter to BOEMRE head Michael Bromwich on Tuesday, the involvement of a Transocean staffer should raise "serious questions as to the credibility and objectivity" of the investigation.

Remember When Cap and Trade Was a GOP Idea?

| Tue Dec. 21, 2010 11:48 AM EST

It might have been hard to tell during the past few years, with Republican opponents branding all attempts to cut greenhouse gas emissions "cap and tax," but the idea of capping emmissions and trading emission permits was originally a GOP idea introduced to deal with acid rain. On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report celebrating the 15-year-old program to curb acid rain as an environmental (and economic) success.

The program aims to cut emissions of the two compounds that cause acid rain, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, and was endorsed by President George H.W. Bush and approved in 1990 as an amendment to the Clean Air Act. The program actually began in 1995. Since then, the American industrial sector has slashed sulfur dioxide pollution 64 percent. Moreover, the EPA reports, the program has saved $120 billion in public health costs, which is about 40 times what it cost to implement the program. The EPA concludes that the program's success in cutting fine particle pollution has saved 20,000 to 50,000 lives per year.

Like the cap and trade system proposed for dealing with an even bigger emission problem, greenhouse gases, the program set a hard limit on emissions and then provided polluters with "allowances" for how much they could emit. Companies were able to trade permits between themselves to meet their needs, a program designed to keep costs lower for industry while achieving the overall reduction goals.

"The program's success has demonstrated that market-based trading systems can cost-effectively reduce pollution and address environmental damage," the EPA concludes in the report.

For more on the political history of cap and trade, see this Smithsonian Magazine piece and this Foreign Policy piece. This is, of course, something to remember as we listen to Republicans attack cap and trade and even the very idea of controls on pollution.

Busy Beavers Building, Part 2

| Tue Dec. 21, 2010 8:48 AM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

After laboring for weeks on end, pushing themselves to their physical limits, the time has now come for the beavers to reap the rewards of their hard work. Not only can signs of the beaver species hard work be seen in the successful colonisation of vast areas including that of the Taiga and Tundra in far North America, but also in their genetic make-up. Beavers teeth have evolved to endure the tough grind needed to prepare for this time of year. For instance, beaver teeth have such sharp edges they were once used as knife blades by Native Americans. In fact, beaver’s front teeth do not stop growing. Which is especially useful as being particularly prolific builders means their most important wood-cutting tool never degenerates or goes blunt!
 
We return to the beaver family in the thick of winter. The lush vegetation, mud and stone are now frozen solid and we see exactly how the beavers hydro-engineering and science of preparation have paid off.

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Mental Health 101

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:58 PM EST

Hey, remember college? The carefree experimentation? The neverending Animal House-style parties? The major depressive episodes?

According to a recent study (PDF) by the American College Counseling Association, today's college kids have a bit more on their plates than the easygoing, hard-partying John Belushi archetypes of yesteryear: Nearly half of college students visiting school counseling centers today have what qualifies as a "severe psychological disorder," about twice the percentage of students that did so 10 years ago. The most common disorders counselors see are depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse, attention disorders, self-injury, and eating disorders.

Busy Beavers Building, Part 1

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:31 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

It’s at this time of year when many of us batten down the hatches and prepare for the chilly months ahead! Pulling shut the windows and doors, building a roaring fire and snuggling up under our coziest of blankets is at the top of our priority list. But how does that compare with the animal kingdom?

Beavers, unlike many of their closest kin which include marmots and squirrels, do not hibernate and live up to their name, keeping busy and working hard to make sure that their winter lodges, much like our homes, are solid, secure and most of all, full of seasonal essentials such as a fully stocked larder and a tailor-made chimney!

Yet to say that beavers are masters of their trade is a huge understatement! Alongside humans, beavers do more to mould and shape their landscape than any other animal. Not only do they fell trees in strategic locations for specific purposes of their own, but they are also responsible for engineering many woodland ponds which bring new life to other animals, and plants alike.

In this first video of our beaver series, we see our family working flat out to prepare their pond for the Wyoming winter!

Return here to see what happens next. Will the dam spring a leak? Will the pond be deep enough? And who invited the muskrats? All will be revealed here soon.

Girl Chimps Make Dolls

| Mon Dec. 20, 2010 4:28 PM EST

Young female chimpanzees treat sticks as dolls. That's according to a new paper in Current Biology. Researchers at Harvard and Bates report more than 100 cases of stick-carrying by young female chimps during 14 years of observations at Kibale National Park in Uganda. Their findings:

  • Young females weren't carrying the sticks to forage or fight or any other discernible reason.
  • Adults carried sticks only for other reasons.
  • Young males carried sticks built far less often.
  • Some young females carried sticks into their nest to sleep with them at night.
  • Once a young chimp built a separate nest for her stick.
  • The researchers witnessed the animals playing a version of the "airplane game," lying on their backs with their "offspring" balanced across their upraised hands.
  • Young females carried sticks until they had offspring of their own.

"We have seen juveniles occasionally carrying sticks for many years, and because they sometimes treated them rather like dolls, we wanted to know if in general this behavior tended to represent something like playing with dolls," says Richard W. Wrangham, the Ruth Moore Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard. "If the doll hypothesis was right we thought that females should carry sticks more than males do, and that the chimpanzees should stop carrying sticks when they had their first offspring. We have now watched enough young chimpanzees to test both points."

The findings link this play to adult behavior, since female carry infants more than 99 percent of the time and males less than 1 percent of the time—making this a seemingly clear case of nature over nurture. But there's little evidence of stick-carrying behavior in other chimpanzee communities. So the Kibale chimps appear to be copying a local behavioral tradition—making this a case of nurture over nature. Put them together, and you get a clear case of biological and social influences entwining. Here's the abstract:

Sex differences in children's toy play are robust and similar across cultures. They include girls tending to play more with dolls and boys more with wheeled toys and pretend weaponry. This pattern is explained by socialization by elders and peers, male rejection of opposite-sex behavior and innate sex differences in activity preferences that are facilitated by specific toys. Evidence for biological factors is controversial but mounting. For instance, girls who have been exposed to high fetal androgen levels are known to make relatively masculine toy choices. Also, when presented with sex-stereotyped human toys, captive female monkeys play more with typically feminine toys, whereas male monkeys play more with masculine toys. In human and nonhuman primates, juvenile females demonstrate a greater interest in infants, and males in rough-and-tumble play. This sex difference in activity preferences parallels adult behavior and may contribute to differences in toy play. Here, we present the first evidence of sex differences in use of play objects in a wild primate, in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). We find that juveniles tend to carry sticks in a manner suggestive of rudimentary doll play and, as in children and captive monkeys, this behavior is more common in females than in males.

Plus, hey guys, girl chimps make toys! How cool is that?

The paper: Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Richard W. Wrangham. Sex differences in chimpanzees' use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children. Current Biology. 20 (24) 2010. DOI 10.1016/j.cub.2010.11.024

Protecting Prostitutes, United Nations Style

| Fri Dec. 17, 2010 10:26 PM EST

In November 2003, 54-year-old Gary Ridgway admitted at his trial for first-degree murder that he was indeed the Green River killer, the long-sought culprit behind the murders of 48 women, mostly street prostitutes. Nearly all his victims were strangled in Seattle, Washington, from 1982 to 1984. His unapologetic statement to the court read, "I picked prostitutes as victims because they were easy to pick up without being noticed. I knew they would not be reported missing right away and might never be reported missing... I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught." (PDF)

Two decades after the murders, the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA started the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, a week-long memorial for Ridgway’s victims and an anti-violence campaign calling attention to hate crimes against sex workers. Today marks the event's seven-year anniversary. And last month, two women took the sex workers' right-to-safety movement even further.

In early November, a trans woman ex-sex worker who'd worked in Washington, DC (who we'll call Regina to protect her identity) and a 20-year sex worker rights advocate named Penelope Saunders appeared at the Palais des Nations in Geneva to lobby UN delegates reviewing the US's human rights record. Holding a report (PDF) assembled by an international coalition of advocacy groups, Regina and Penelope tried to talk ambassadors from Columbia, Australia, New Zealand, and 12 other countries into recommending that the US dismantle its anti-prostitution policies. The report suggests that all mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for those arrested under prostitution charges should be repealed. And that sex workers arrested and charged under prostitution laws should have their records cleared. Support services like education, job training, and healthcare should replace criminal charges, it adds. 

"Arrests for sex work," the report explains, "can lead to a cycle of continued exclusion from housing and other job opportunities, and to re-imprisonment." And since sex work in the U.S. is treated as a crime, "law enforcement officials frequently fail to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime, and thus deny justice or support to sex workers who seek their help.

Law enforcement officials frequently fail to recognize that sex workers can be victims of crime.

Denying help is just the start: "You’d be surprised how many policemen I had sex with," Toni Collins, co-founder of D.C.’s Transgender Health Empowerment told Amnesty International in a report on police abuse against gay, lesbian, and transgender people in the US. "They’d say, 'You do it with me, or I’m going to arrest you for prostitution.' Then they’d tell me to go home and I better not tell anybody."

"I think it’s really hypocritical to say that some people deserve protection from violence and others don’t," Regina says. "That’s a really classic thing we use toward any group we don’t like." Mother Jones caught up with Regina on Skype and Penelope over email to talk about Geneva, feminism, and what decriminalized prostitution in the United States could look like.

Mother Jones: How was Geneva?

Regina: We had a lot of great conversations. I don’t think anybody blew us off. Everyone at least listened to us and took the information and said they would consider it... Countries from Latin America were the most interested and more engaged. At the end, Uruguay did make a recommendation to the United States about the need to address the special vulnerability of sex workers to violence and human rights abuses. It was interesting because they put that phrase in with some recommendations about LGBT people... November 20 was Transgender Day of Remembrance and, how many of the people who are remembered who are killed,

You don’t have to arrest people to stop having used condoms on the sidewalk.

are mostly transgender women of color who have been involved in sex work?

MJ: Did any of the delegates say anything that really stuck out for you?

R: We had a really good conversation with Colombia. They had just had a Constitutional Court decision that recognized the right of sex workers as workers and as individuals, to the point of saying that there’s an explicit contract between a sex worker and a client when they make an agreement about something. That’s really powerful. I don’t think any country has gone that far.

MJ: A lot of advocacy groups came together to create the report on abuse faced by sex workers for the Universal Periodic Review, which reviews the human rights records of its 192 member states once every four years. What do you hope your report and recommendations will accomplish policy wise?

PS: This is the first time that I know of that the international community has asked the US about its record on sex workers' rights. This gives advocates within the US an opportunity to speak to US policy makers and raise all the issues highlighted in the report. It's a very positive opportunity because rather than advocates reacting to poor policy proposals made by the US (such as the anti-prostitution pledge) it means that advocates can be pro-active and say to the US, "what will you do to improve the lives of sex workers, people in the sex trade, and people profiled as such?"

MJ: Could you describe how decriminalization would affect sex workers' lives in the US?

PS:
 Removing laws against prostitution is one part of a broad campaign for sex workers' rights. In Arizona, people convicted on prostitution related offenses are incarcerated on the first offense. Obviously this dramatically affects people's lives. In other places, people face mandatory HIV testing when they are arrested for prostitution related offenses and if they test positive face felony charges and other repercussions. This violates human rights standards and undermines health initiatives.

R: I often hear people say, "They’re out on the corner all night and they’re used condoms on the sidewalk," and whatever. And it’s like, if we were in a different context those problems could probably be solved without needing to arrest people. You don’t have to arrest people to stop having used condoms on the sidewalk. Sometimes the negative affects of the work sex workers do is a result of criminalization and stigma. If the environment for it were a little bit different maybe we wouldn’t have some of the same problems. 

For folks directly affected by anti-prostituion laws right now, who actually exchange sex or sexual services for money as opposed to the simulation of it, I think a model where they can work safely, where their informal contract will be recognized and validated and respected, so that if someone abuses them during the contract they have some recourse, a model where they can get services, where police will take violence against them seriously, that's what should be used. How that looks exactly I’m not sure. But local sex workers need to be at the table and leadership of whatever policy changes there are.

Seventeen or 18 percent of sex workers reported violence, especially sexual violence from the police towards them. Those people were more likely to be transgender and also more likely to be migrants. The violence committed by police and other law enforcement ... It’s usually ignored. Police won’t take violence against them (whether by pimp or whomever) seriously because of the stigma, and their label against them as, "well, you shouldn’t be out here anyways so what do you expect. That’s what you get." That’s a widespread mentality: that people engaged in sexual work, sexual exchange, sexual trade... that they are worthless. They are throwaway. That’s the attitude that allows and perpetrates violence both from police and from other people such as the Green River killer Gary Ridgway.

MJ: What do you say to people who think prostitution should be criminalized to deter people from getting into it or to convince those in it to find another vocation?

R: I think people defend criminalization because they think [prostitution] is wrong and that sex workers are dirty and they’re bad and they’re just criminals and whatever happens to them they deserve it. And to those people obviously I say, we’re human beings and we provide an important service and sometimes the negative affects of the work we do is a result of criminalization and stigma.

I think for people who are so-called feminist or otherwise claiming to be wanting to help sex workers and criminalizing them is a way to help them, they’re suffering from a problem where they think they know all the answers and they don’t. And they’re not interested in actually listening to people talk about what will help them. They want to tell people how to be helped. They don’t want to hear that maybe this sex worker actually felt that jail changed her life, but that these other three actually have different prospectives about it. Anti-prostitution feminists they want things to be very simplistic. But they are supporting policies that often end in human rights abuses.