A cute baby goat munches hay.

A round-up of news on health, the environment, and energy published on our other blogs this week.

Devil's in the Details: Americans like Ryan's overall health care plan, but not the deets.

Unen-forcible: The FBI's 82-year-old rape definition still requires force to be involved.

Fetal Felony: A proposed bill gives women a 15-year sentence for having an abortion.

Say Cheese: Bill proposes giving women ultrasound pic (for free!) with abortions.

Hell No: NJ residents are outraged—outraged!—at solar panels on telephone poles.

Upward Spiral: US healthcare costs are skyrocketing; other countries not so much.

No Money, Mo' Problems: Medicare users need to pay more because of inflation.




Life Is Human

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

Over the next few months will be a diving into what, how and why we do the things we do. We will be bringing you Human stories from all over the globe and from all different walks of life, and exclusively from the people who make it happen at BBC Earth.

1. Living fig tree bridges. Villagers in Meghalaya use the roots of live strangler figs to build living bridges. These roots are so strong that the bridges can hold as many as 50 people.













2. Sacred bathing. The Ganges is more than just a river. Known throughout India as the Ganga Ma, "Mother Ganges" it's thought that anyone who touches this sacred water is cleansed of all sins.













3. Underneath an ice sheet. The Greenland ice sheet holds 10 percent of the planets fresh water. If it were to thaw, water levels around the world would rise by around 7 meters. That’s the height of a three story building.













4. Stilt houses. The oceans may cover 70% of the earth's surface but that hasn't stopped the people of the Sabah, Malaysia, living there.












5. A homemade crossing. The Mekong River is a deadly crossing in the flood season, but Samniang still risks his life most days to get dinner for his family.











6. Mountain settlements. The Simien mountains reach as high as the Alps in some places but the highest point is Ras Dejen, the fourth highest peak in Africa.












7.Sulphur miners. Toxic gasses, an active volcano, and the serious risk of death doesn't stop these men from going to work each day at the sulphur mine.












8. The annual plastering of the Grande Mosque. Every year the Grande Mosque in Djenne is given a vital mudpack. Local people come together and recover the largest mud building in the world with more mud.












9. The Toka festival. For three days each year on Tanna island, up to 2,000 participants attempt to out-do each other with their lavish gifts, dancing skills, and ornate makeup.












10. The Wodaabe courtship dancers. For the people of the Wodaabe, it's the men who are judged on looks. White eyes and teeth will get you a long way, but the taller the better.

Despite what the protesters at your local Planned Parenthood may say, abortion is not unsafe. In fact, you're about 20 times more likely to die from childbirth-related ailments than you are from getting an abortion.* In California, a disturbing new report shows that more pregnant women are dying than before, due to increased obesity rates, more Cesarean sections, older mothers, and limited health care access. Part of the rise is also attributed to better data reporting methods.

The study (PDF) says that the maternal mortality rate in California is about 14 out of 100,000 live births. In 2005, it was around 12 and in 2002 it was around 10. The rate (and increase) may not sound high, but take into consideration that more than half a million women give birth in California each year, and the state accounts for 1 of 8 births in the US.

In 2004, 82% had insurance that covered maternity services. Today, only 22% do.

The rise in mortality seen in California also reflects national trends, the report says, which is bad news for moms, especially moms of color. African-American women suffer maternal mortality rates far higher than any other ethnic group: about 46 of 100,000 African-American mothers die due to childbirth, as compared to much lower rates in Whites (12.4), Hispanics (12.8), and Asians (9.3). The authors of the report are still not sure exactly why African-American women are four times as likely to die than women of other races, but they suspect a combination of higher obesity rates, lower use of prenatal health care, less adequate care, and various risk factors as a result of lower socioeconomic status (e.g. higher stress). But the authors still seemed to be scratching their heads about how one ethnic group could make up only 6% of all California births, but 22% of maternal deaths.

Another anomaly: although Hispanics overall account for 51% of all California births, foreign-born Hispanics had much better health than those born in the US. "Immigrant Hispanics tend to have better health than the average American population, in spite of what their aggregate socioeconomic indicators would predict," write the study's authors. It could be because foreign-born women give birth at younger ages, when they are less likely to encounter complications. Or it could simply be that the American lifestyle, and health care system, is so unhealthy that it's actually a liability. The high Cesarean rate, which accounts for a third of all births, in particular, is directly related to maternal mortality. And then there's the question of care, and of cost. Only 22% of people with health insurance in California (the report says) have coverage for maternity services: In 2004, 82% of them did. For those who can't get, or can't afford, private health insurance, there's Medi-Cal, which paid for 47% of all prenatal and pregnancy-related costs in 2008. An especially interesting tidbit found in the report is that 7% of women in Medi-Cal's maternity program actually HAVE private insurance: their insurance just doesn't cover maternal services.

There's something seriously wrong when your health insurer doesn't cover your prenatal care. Maybe this could be a new torch for the pro-life movement, or a larger one for the pro-choicers. It seems like a perfect platform for a "family values" Republican, no?


*This is provided your abortion is in the first trimester, as 90% of all abortions are. The risk goes up for later abortions.

Looks like the past year hasn't been so bad after all for BP, which today reported a 16 percent increase in profits over the first quarter of 2010. The company reported $7.2 billion in net earnings—compared to $6.2 billion for the first three months of last year.

The company sold off a bunch of assets in order to pay for the Gulf oil disaster, which is how they managed to keep the profits up. BP also hasn't been drilling in the deepwater since that whole giant oil catastrophe it unleashed last year. But to still report an increase in income is, well…let's just say I have a hard time feeling too bad for them because their profits weren't as high as they could have been.

Never fear though, as the company says it expects to be back out drilling in the Gulf by the second quarter of this year.

Rosario Dawson poses with a sack of Kellogg Amend, a fertilizer composed of sewage sludgeRosario Dawson poses with a sack of Kellogg Amend, a soil additive made from sewage sludgeLast May, a group of movie stars gathered at a schoolyard garden in Venice, California to raise money for the Environmental Media Association, a prominent Hollywood green group that supports organic gardens at public schools. Among the publicity photos snapped that day was a product-placement shot of Rosario Dawson planting vegetables alongside a sack of Kellogg Amend, an "organic" soil supplement sold by Kellogg Garden Products, one of EMA's corporate sponsors. "This was one of those unfortunate weird things," says EMA president Debbie Levin, who hadn't known anything about Amend before the shoot. Amend, she later learned, is not approved for organic farming because it's made from municipal sewage sludge.

Levin isn't the only urban gardener who has gotten cozier than she might have liked with other people's poo. The list of ingredients on Amend's packaging avoids the terms "sewage sludge" and "biosolids" (the sewage industry's preferred term) in favor of the more vague "compost." But there's no doubt that Kellogg's "compost" comes from sludge, says John Stauber, a consultant for the Wisconsin-based Food Rights Network, who traced Amend's origins to a Southern California sludge treatment plant. He equates the discovery to "finding out that the giant gorgeous Alpine mountain that you've been living next to is a heap of toxic waste." (Kellogg Garden Products did not return a call from Mother Jones).

Poop may be the least of the problems with biosolids; sludge's dirty secret is that it can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. A 2009 EPA survey of sludge samples from across the US found nearly universal contamination by 10 flame retardants and 12 pharmaceuticals and exceptionally high levels of endocrine disruptors such as triclosan, an ingredient in antibacterial soap that scientists believe is killing amphibians. Large food processors such as H.J. Heinz won't allow crops grown with sludge in any of their products. For more on sludge's safety issues, check out the 2009 Mother Jones story, Sludge Happens.

Stauber, who who first exposed the hyping of sludge in the 1995 book Toxic Sludge is Good For You!, sees Amend and similar products as examples of greenwashing gone wild. The USDA doesn't regulate which fertilizers can be labeled as "organic," allowing anyone to use the term (though it bans the use of sludge in organic agriculture). And the nonprofit U.S. Composting Council sees no problem in using its green image for the Orwellian rebranding of sludge. Biosolids companies sit on its board of directors and are sponsoring its upcoming Composting Week. 

So what to do if you're a home gardener who wants compost without the sewage? Try checking the website of the Organic Materials Review Institute, which vets agricultural products used by certified organic farmers. That's the preferred approach of Levin, who stresses that no Kellogg Amend was ever actually applied to EMA's gardens (though one school may have inadvertently ordered a different sludge-based product). "Everything was according to what we asked for," she says. "We use the organic stuff." 

Tokyoites, like residents of many big cities, are used to bright nights. In the wake of the failure of the Fukushima nuclear plant and power station, Tokyo is trying to save electricity. For example, in subway tunnels, only one of every three ceiling lights is being lit, and the huge, bustling Shinjuku area of downtown Tokyo has many signs left dark. But despite these cuts, one news station shows that even at current levels, Tokyo is just as bright as London. In general, Tokyoites are used to much brighter (and more) lights than Londoners.

Above, you can see a NASA map of Japan and London from space at night. Despite having comparable populations of around 12 million, London and Tokyo look different from space. Tokyo looks brighter, though that could be because of Japan's overall higher population density. The people in Tokyo interviewed in the video say that they're okay with things being a little darker than before, and Londoners seem fine with their slightly darker city. So perhaps going forward, Japan could consider reducing its non-essential electricity use. This could be particularly true in the case of hot, humid, Tokyo summers, when overall energy use increases as residents turn to air conditioning and fans to cool down. Some Tokyoites, stuck after the earthquake disrupted train service, have already switched to non-electric forms of transportation like bicycles that would remain unaffected by rolling blackouts.

As a side note, I remain encouraged that the situation in Japan will improve and later this year (with any luck) Tokyoites will have a life that more closely resembles normal. If anything, at least when a Japanese company like Tepco suffers a huge disaster, they cut executive pay rather than give them bonuses for "the best year in safety performance in our company's history" like Transocean did after the BP spill. 

h/t JapanProbe


setsuden nippon by weathersunksprb

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

The writer C.S. Lewis once said that 'Humans are amphibians–half spirit and half animal.' He may have been speaking symbolically, but he wasn't too far from the truth!

The name "amphibian" comes from the Greek meaning 'two' and 'modes of life'. Their ability to transform from water-breathing juveniles into an air-breathing adults meant a better chance at finding food and less of a chance that they would have to fight for it. But learning to breathe wasn't the only thing up against these aquatic pioneers. The greatest challenge was how to get there.

In the beginning, one group of amphibians developed multi-jointed leg-like fins which allowed them to crawl along the sea floor. And incredibly, the mudskipper pictured above is part of that same family. And not only were their bodies in an evolutionary deviation, but their minds were too!

In a recent study, fossils from 500 million year old rocks were found to have be exhibiting extraordinary ways of dealing with issues of protection as well as dry skin. Likened to the modern hermit crab, these brave explorers would adopt abandoned shells they probably found on their way toward the tidal flats and beaches where they could feed. And not only would the hard shell protect and disguise their fleshy body, but the inner chamber would also enable their gills to stay moist. Effectively using the shell as a tool to facilitate their terrestrial adventures into the unknown. Clever crawlers indeed.

Yet if the search for a shell was anything like the BBC Earth hermit crab video below, it may give us an idea why the animals of the oxygen-rich marine waters also developed other ways of living on land. Hot competition or what?

While acquiring many unique methods for biological, behavioural and ecological adjustment, amphibians have positioned themselves as one of the most innovative species on the planet. Always subject to change, the now three modern orders of amphibians include: frogs and toads, salamanders and newts, and caecilians which are limbless amphibians that mostly resemble snakes. Still, they retain a role which is vital to human society and it's survival.

Whether it's substances created from their glands that provide principle source for our medicines, or if it's the eating of insects, therefore lowering the potential for insect-borne disease to spread, humans owe amphibians tremendous respect.

And it's not only what they've done but what they are doing right now. Genetic researchers have recently found that frog DNA has several genes arranged in the same order as in humans. And one of these genes known as p21 has the ability to block, and more importantly unblock, the power to heal—but not just heal, recreate! Though still at the very early stages of study, this just proves that although it may have been a very slow crawl from water to land, it was definitely worth the wait!

This post was first published on Earth Day 2011.

Confession: I can't stand Earth Day. I know I'm not alone; by time I was born it was already getting a little cliché. And I actually do believe the equally tired idea that it should be every day, not just one single 24-hour period at the end of April that sometimes coincides with both Easter and Passover and the hockey playoffs. The reason I dislike it so much is that it has become just another excuse to peddle products of dubious "green" credentials and host events that involve celebrities in the lower-B-list category.

But I'm finding it especially hard to handle this year. Wednesday was the first anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster. It also comes against the backdrop of last year's total failure to pass a climate and energy bill in the Senate—or pass even the most basic legislation responding to the oil spill, arguably the worst environmental disaster in US history. Frankly, this Earth Day sucks because it just serves to remind me that the environmental movement is not exactly the powerhouse it was 41 years ago. Back then, millions of Americans mobilized not just to honor the environment as something worth protecting, but to demand that their leaders do something about it. The Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act as we know them today are all products of that generation of environmental activism.

If you can't make hay of a disaster—a visible, fast-moving one like the oil spill or a less tangible one like climate change—is there any hope of changing things? I know that the country's leading environmental groups have spent a good deal of the past year discussing, at least internally within individual groups, where the heck they went wrong. But there is still an unwillingness, it seems, to have a real conversation between groups and in the progressive community more broadly about what went wrong and what can be done better in the future.

To that end, a report released earlier this week has been creating a stir in the green world: In Climate Shift, Matthew Nisbet, a communication professor at American University, evaluates why environmental groups failed to pass a climate bill. It's generated quite a bit of controversy on two particular points—one, the conclusion that green groups actually outspent foes of the legislation and two, that media coverage of climate science has actually been pretty good. (Full disclosure: My partner is a colleague of Nisbet's at AU.)

There is certainly no shortage of books about the Deepwater Horizon disaster: at least eight by my count, and nine if you include the 300-page package of recommendations that the National Oil Spill Commission put out earlier this year (which you can buy on Amazon for about $40). Many of these books were published just in time for this week's first anniversary of the spill, and several of them managed to make it to my desk.

I'd like to say I read every last work of every one of them, but, well, they're all pretty long and I've both read and written quite a bit about the disaster. I wish I could say, "If you were going to read just one book on the oil spill, it should be X," but frankly each of these books offers pretty different takes on the same explosion and ensuing nightmare.

Antonia Juhasz's Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill surveys the overconfidence in safety and technology that led to the situation on the Deepwater Horizon and the scale of the disaster it unleashed. Juhasz, who directs the energy program at the environment and human rights group Global Exchange, talks to the families of the victims of the explosion, combs through accounts of the survivors, and pulls together many of the strings of the story of what really happened on April 20 in a way that's both engaging and informative.

As her 2008 book The Tyranny of Oil would suggest, Juhasz is certainly no big fan of the oil industry. And her criticism is pretty scathing, if not undue. While it has a lot of important information, hers is not the most compelling narrative; it could benefit from some more literary flow and story-telling. Some of her descriptions of people and places a bit clunky and strained. It's an engaging read overall though.

Noted conservationist and writer Carl Safina's offering on the Gulf disaster, A Sea in Flames, is a passionate and detailed account of both the explosion and the giant mess that unfolded over the ensuing months. He expends a good deal of effort explaining things like exactly how drilling works in vivid detail. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand this kind of thing myself, I can only imagine that for him, writing the book was also an exercise in trying to better understand what exactly happened.

Safina's book is best at the points where he does not remove himself from the story. It's most telling moments are when he expresses the frustration and sadness that many who lived through the spill must have been feeling. And one point he recalls trekking across beaches on June 8, which is World Ocean Day. "I'm having a bit of a hard time, emotionally speaking, with that," he writes. No kidding.

Also telling is Safina's exploration of what exactly went wrong in the administration's handling of the spill. It's a question that has bothered me greatly; the Obama administration has pledged to uphold science and has appointed a number of truly great scientists, yet some of the things that happened in the months following the spill were truly horrifying. Safina pays particular attention to Jane Lubchenco, the noted marine ecologist and current head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose handling of both the undersea plumes of oil and the report on where the oil went drew fair criticism. Safina has worked with Lubchenco closely in the past, so his take on the of the pressures the administration faced in dealing with the politics of the spill—the fact that they did not do a particularly good job of it in many regards—is quite interesting.

Safina's writing has many elements that seem more like something jotted in a notebook than thoughts fleshed out for a narrative. At times it's useful, but more often it gets a little grating. Also tiresome is his use of the initials "BP" to make points throughout the book, which gets stretched at times—Big Paycheck, Beyond Payable, Big Pressure, Breaking Point … you get the idea.

For more of an industry insider's take on what went wrong, I recommend Bob Cavnar's Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. Cavnar, who blogs at the Daily Hurricane, spent more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry. His is the perspective of someone who understands the cultural and political elements of offshore drilling, but he also delivers the criticism it deserves. He is also able to maintain realism about both the problems of oil dependence and the logistical challenge of getting off petroleum any time soon.

Cavnar offers a thorough examination on the regulatory system that allowed this disaster to take place, and of the revolving door and close relationship between industry and the government that developed over the years. The portion of the book devoted to where we should go from here left me wanting a bit. Given that nothing has really changed in terms of policy and politics on the issue in the past year, A more detailed look at what should and can be changed would have added to the conversation.

A few other books out there on the topic that I haven't yet been able to check out: Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, by Tom Shroder and John Konrad; In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took it Down, by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald; In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and Ending Our Oil Addiction, by Peter Lehner and Bob Deans; Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America, by William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling; and Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit, by Loren C. Steffy.

Health and environmental stories from our other blogs this week.

Company Men: Dems opposing Medicare panel have industry ties.

Old Hat: BP is back in the politics game, greasing palms in DC.

Anti-Anal: Map of states that still have legal bans on anal sex.

Old Guy, New Ad: Ad suggests if GOP reforms Medicare, gramps will have to become a stripper.

Teen Spirit: Study says living in a Democratic area reduces suicide by gay teens.

Cutting Candidates: Bill requires long-form birth certificate or circumcision record to run for office.

Cost of Business: There's a key flaw in the notion that health care is a consumer good.

High Costs: Americans pay a lot for health care, but they don't get much covered.

Mr. Robato: Tech multitasking may be eating your brain.