Blue Marble - May 2011

Is the WHO Saying Cell Phones Cause Cancer?

| Tue May 31, 2011 6:31 PM EDT

There's been much freaking out about a World Health Organization announcement (PDF) about the link between mobile phone use and cancer: The group now considers radiation from cell phones a possible carcinogen. Sounds scary, but what does it actually mean?

Over at BoingBoing, there's a good post that explains why the WHO news isn't really news at all. It doesn't represent any new scientific findings; rather it basically tells us what we've known for a while: that while very limited evidence suggests there might be a connection between some brain tumors and radiation, there isn't enough to say for sure that cell phone use causes cancer.

Frustrating though this may be, it's par for the course for epidemiology. The fact of the matter is that proving causation is just really hard. Indeed, as the New York Times points out, other examples of "possibly carcinogenic" substances include some dry cleaning chemicals and pesticides, but also coffee and pickles.

Even the results of the Interphone project, the largest and most highly anticipated epidemiological study of cell phones and cancer to date, were maddeningly inconclusive when they came in last year. The researchers from the 13 participating countries did find that although very heavy cell phone users were about 40 percent more likely to develop glioma, but there were so many potentially confounding methodological issues that the ultimate conclusion was that cell phone use does not significantly increase cancer risk for the vast majority of people.

Unfortunately, all of this means we're pretty much just as in-the-dark as we were about the subject when I was reporting on cell phones and radiation a few years back. And frustratingly, as I noted before, we probably won't know more for at least a few years:

Finding subjects who have brain tumors and who have used their cell phones for more than 10 years is difficult, especially considering that the tumors typically take 10 to 20 years to develop. What's more, people are notoriously bad at remembering how much they've used their phones and which ear they hold their cell phone up to—especially if they're looking around for something to blame a brain tumor on. 

In the meantime, does that mean that you're all clear to sleep with your cell phone next to you on your pillow? Of course not; it just means that the researchers haven't yet proven anything one way or the other. As a precaution, the WHO panel suggests you'd do well to limit talking time, especially for kids.

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NOAA's Gamble on the Bluefin Tuna

| Fri May 27, 2011 7:37 PM EDT

The Atlantic bluefin tuna's days could be numbered. The tuna's spawning population, which used to thrive in the Gulf of Mexico, has for decades been on a steep decline due to overfishing, shrinking by more than 80 percent since 1970. While acknowledging this trend, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today that the Atlantic populations of bluefin tuna did not warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, at least for now. From the agency's press release:

NOAA's status review...indicates that based on the best available information and assuming countries comply with the bluefin tuna fishing quotas established by ICCAT, both the western and eastern Atlantic stocks are not likely to become extinct.

That's a big assumption to make, especially considering that national fishing fleets routinely breach the standards set by ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas). ICCAT's standards, moreover, tend to be much weaker than what scientists recommend: In November, the commission set the species' annual fishing limit at about 14,200 tons, but the World Wildlife Fund recommends less than half that amount. NOAA's decision is particularly puzzling because in 2010 the US was one of three countries to support a proposal to the United Nations to ban international trade of bluefin tuna until it rebounds in number, which was voted down after facing strong opposition from major tuna consumers like Japan.

One reason NOAA posits for rejecting the bluefin tuna protection is the declining number of tuna caught in the US, arguing that domestic catch levels have consistently fallen well below its ICCAT-designated quota. But that isn't really a matter of choice, since the tuna's population in the Gulf and West Atlantic Ocean have already declined so significantly. There simply aren't fish left to catch.

A petition, filed last May by the Center for Biological Diversity, also raised concerns about the BP Deepwater Horizon's effect on bluefin, following the European Space Agency's finding that the spill had reduced the young bluefin tuna by 20 percent. And as Mother Jones correspondent Julia Whitty reported last fall, the spill's damages to deep-sea creatures (bluefin tuna included) could be far worse than we think.

But for now, NOAA has decided the study was flawed and inconclusive, and that it will wait to see what the agency's Natural Resources Damage Assessment has to say in 2012 about the BP spill's impact on the fisheries.

Cap-and-Trade Initiative Axed by New Jersey Gov. Christie

| Fri May 27, 2011 3:54 PM EDT

Yesterday, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) announced plans to withdraw his state from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)—a cap-and-trade system designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 10 percent by 2018—fueling new speculations about his national political aspirations. It also raises questions about the long-term survival of voluntary cap-and-trade programs. As Emilie Mazzacurati, a Thomson Reuters Point Carbon market analyst, told the New York Times, "the direct impact" of Christie's decision "is going to be minimal...The question is, will other states follow?"

Because of that question, Jeff Tittel, director of New Jersey's Sierra Club chapter, calls the decision an "environmental disaster."

Under RGGI (pronounced "Reggie"), participating states set a limit on power plants' emissions and make them buy credits that they can exchange in order to emit specific amounts of greenhouse gases. Utilities with emissions under the limit get to sell their extra credits at quarterly online auctions.

New Jersey had been one of 10 Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states in the regional program, and is the first to pull out. But at a press conference, Christie said he remains "completely committed" to the environment and criticized RGGI as an ineffective program that unfairly taxes electric utilities and citizens alike. He also released a statement listing 21 environmental actions undertaken by his administration.

"I think his statement yesterday had so much hot air it should be regulated by RGGI," says Tittel.

As evidence, Tittel points to Christie's efforts to drain millions of dollars from environmental programs, including $158 million from the Clean Energy Fund, to pay off the state's $11 billion budget deficit; and New Jersey's recent withdrawl from a multi-state lawsuit seeking to cut the greenhouse gas emissions of five major utilities.

Politically, he says, Christie is "trying to have it both ways," presenting himself as a green energy advocate to New Jersey residents while appealing nationally to the Tea Party crowd. (Americans for Properity, cofounded by Tea Party billionaire David Koch, has actively attacked RGGI as an example of excessive taxation.)

"I think he wants to be on a national ticket, whether it's number one or number two," Tittel says. "I'm not sure he's running [for president], but he will be a top choice for vice president."

That's consistent with speculation that Christie may run for president to fill a void in an uninspiring Republican field, something that the governor has repeatedly denied. (Christie's office did not immediately return a call from Mother Jones seeking comment.)

Video: From Allergies to Deadly Disease, Feeling the Effects of Climate Change

| Fri May 27, 2011 3:04 PM EDT

A rare but deadly fungal disease once occurring only in tropical climates has recently led to several deaths in the Pacific Northwest. Some researchers believe that climate change may be to blame for the disease's emergence there.

When Trudy Rosler first got sick after a visit to Vancouver Island in British Columbia, doctors were stumped. Eventually they discovered that she had fungus growing in her brain stem—one that was previously only known to exist in the tropics. Researchers say that subtle changes in climate over the last 40 years may be the reason it's infecting people much farther north. Here in the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is already treating climate change as a serious health threat.

Need to Know's medical correspondent Dr. Emily Senay examines how a warming climate is already affecting our health, from making allergies worse to affecting the spread of infectious diseases and pushing the extremes of killer weather.

This video was produced by Need to Know for the Climate Desk collaboration.

"School of Shock" Founder Forced to Resign

| Fri May 27, 2011 1:16 PM EDT
Matthew Israel at the Judge Rotenberg Center

A few years ago, Mother Jones published Jennifer Gonnerman's year-long investigation of the Judge Rotenberg Center (JRC), a Massachusetts private school for special needs kids that uses painful electric shocks for discipline. Despite the story's impact, and despite several state and federal investigations, the school remains open. Currently the school receives state funds to educate and care for children with a wide range of conditions. Some are severely autistic or schizophrenic, while others are simply troubled teens whose rebellious behavior was too much for the public school system to handle. But regardless of their mental or physical capacities, the school has a one-size-fits-all treatment for about half of its students: electric shocks.

JRC has weathered attacks for 40 years, but there are signs that the wind may be changing: Earlier this month, school founder and executive director Matthew Israel announced he is stepping down as of June 1. In a statement, Israel said, "I am now almost 78 years old, and it is time for me to move over and let others take the reins." Israel will reportedly be moving to California to join his wife, Judy Weber, who runs a special needs school called Tobinworld. In his official statement, Israel made no mentions of the recent charges plaguing the school, but it's been discovered that his resignation is part of a plea bargain to spare himself jail time. 

As the Boston Herald reports, Israel agreed to resign and to undergo "five years of pre-trial probation to settle charges accusing him of interfering with an investigation..." The investigation in question is a 2007 incident in which someone pretending to be a JRC supervisor prank-called the school and ordered administrators to shock two special needs teens. The administrators gave one teen 29 shocks, and the other 77. And though the school will tell you the shocks feel like a bee sting, Gonnerman says it feels more like a swarm of wasps attacking.

There is 24/7 video surveillance of all students and staff, so these actions should have been easily preserved as evidence. However, Massachusetts attorney general Martha Coakley indicted Israel on charges that he ordered staff to destroy video footage of the incident. "Dr. Israel then attempted to destroy evidence of the events and mislead investigators, and that conduct led to his indictments today," she told the Guardian. "Today's action removes Dr. Israel from the school and should ensure better protection for students in the future."

By agreeing to leave the school, Israel was able to avoid incarceration, but his departure doesn't necessarily mean that things at the school will change immediately. As part of the deal, there will be additional checks in place to make sure incidents similar to the 2007 event don't recur, but the shock devices will still be allowed. JRC is currently looking for a replacement for Israel. Until then, his longtime, trusted, second-in-command Glenda Crookes will run the school. Hope she's up to the task: even though Israel's gone, the Department of Justice still has an open investigation of the school for violations of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Gem of the Week: Big Pharma in Juvie

| Fri May 27, 2011 8:18 AM EDT

Instead of the usual Eco-News Roundup of stories from our other blogs, we're experimenting with a new format. This week, I'm shining a light on a news article from the past 5 days that covered an underreported environmental topic or illuminated a new side of an existing issue. Hopefully this format will be more relevant, and more interesting, than the old Eco-News Roundup.

This week's gem for reporting on science, health, and the environment goes to... the Palm Beach Post in Florida, for revealing ties between psychiatrists in juvenile halls and manufacturers of antipsychotic drugs. The Post's investigation found that a handful of psychiatrists working for Florida's Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) were paid high speaking fees or given gifts by pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca. "In at least one case, the number of Medicaid prescriptions a psychiatrist wrote for children rose sharply around the time he was paid, The Post found." Even worse, the antipsychotics were prescribed by the DJJ doctors were not approved for safe use in children.

Since the Post's investigation, the DJJ has launched an internal investigation about the use of antipsychotics in its system. However, as the Post found while reporting, the DJJ's record-keeping system is in bad shape, making it hard for even DJJ employees to find the information they're looking for. In addition, not all juvie programs are run directly by the DJJ. "No information was available," the Post noted, "on the amounts of antipsychotic drugs dispensed in the more than 100 remaining programs for juveniles... run by private contractors."

Read the Post's entire, in-depth investigation at their site, here.

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Mattel Wants Barbie to Build Green Dream Home

| Thu May 26, 2011 3:05 PM EDT

This post first appeared on the Mother Nature Network.

As part of toymaker Mattel's career empowerment-minded line "I Can Be …" collection of Barbie dolls, the pink corvette-driving blonde bombshell has been reimagined as Architect Barbie, complete with "symmetrically stylish outfit" and "essential on-the-job accessories" like a hard hat and pink document tube. Past "I Can Be …" Barbies have included movie star, veterinarian, dentist, lifeguard, news anchor, racecar driver, ballerina, and, ummm, bride.

The awesome fact that the brand's "career of the year" is architect (and not Pussycat Doll or cookbook-shilling Real Housewife) also has some historic significance: 2011 marks the 125th anniversary of women's acceptance into professional architecture associations. Says Despina Stratigakos, Professor of Architectural History at the University at Buffalo and Architect Barbie consultant: "For more than a century, women have chosen to become architects to express and give form to new ways of living. Yet some still consider architecture an unusual profession for a woman. Architect Barbie salutes the many generations of women architects and encourages young girls to imagine a better world they can design and build."

Weather Roulette

| Wed May 25, 2011 5:04 PM EDT

Tornado costs are rising—in lives, so far, more than 500, in costs, so far... well, Scientific American reports on a different kind of ground-breaking:

Sunday's tornado [in Joplin] also thrusts the insurance industry toward a potential record-breaking year for thunderstorm-related damage. Inland storm claims over the last three years have risen to about $30 billion altogether. That accounts for almost one-third of all the thunderstorm damage going back to 1990, amounting to $97.8 billion, according to the Insurance Information Institute. This year will add billions more onto that tally.

Initial calculations are that Joplin's whopping EF-5 monster will likely be the costliest single tornado in history—at $1 to 3 billion. I wrote yesterday about how warmer sea surface temperatures in the Gulf Of Mexico are helping fire up the atmospheric war producing these tornadoes.

 

 

  

There are a lot of scary tornado videos out there right now. I appreciate the human silence on this one.

  

 

The animation is from NOAA's Environmental Visualization Lab. It gives a continuous satellite view of tornado activity in April—which spawned more tornadoes than any other month in history: 875 reported; 625 confirmed, so far. Next closest contender was May 2003 with 542 tornadoes.

Most of all, this animation gives me a visceral sense of how scary it is right now living under the gun of weather roulette.

NOAA's caption:

The animation shows the GOES-East infrared imagery from April 1-30, along with the locations of each tornado that formed during the time (symbolized as red dots). Though tornadoes cannot actually be seen by GOES, these satellites are instrumental in being able to detect the conditions associated with their formation. As the resolution of GOES has increased with each successive satellite series, so have the warning times for tornadoes... The actual tornado locations are acquired from the Storm Prediction Center, which uses both NEXRAD radar and ground reports to generate a detailed database of tornadoes in the U.S.


Shareholders Put the Heat on Chevron

| Wed May 25, 2011 9:05 AM EDT
Members of the Rainforest Action Network rappel off the Richmond Bridge Monday morning in Northern California to string up a banner that reads "Chevron Guilty: Clean Up Amazon."

Anti-Chevron activism has been at a fever pitch this week in advance of the oil giant’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday morning. Yesterday saw the release of Global Exchange's third annual alternative "The True Cost of Chevron" report, which highlights the company's bad behavior in the past year. Other environmental groups are taking their usual public condemnation of the divisive company to new heights (check out that photo of the Richmond Bridge in Northern California), and working to hit Chevron where it hurts—in the moneymaker. And Chevron's shareholders appear to be listening.

Much of the controversy surrounding Chevron stems from its knock-down, drag-out legal battle in Ecuador. Eighteen years ago, a lawsuit brought against the oil conglomerate by a group of Ecuadorian citizens alleged that Texaco Inc. (which was owned by Chevron at the time) spent decades dumping chemical-laden waste into the Amazon, causing major environmental damage and widespread health problems. This February, an Ecuadorian court ordered Chevron to pay up to $18 billion in damages—a sum comparable in size only to BP's promised $20 billion. The ruling is currently under appeal.

Despite the upheavel, in its newly-released annual report, Chevron gives itself glowing reviews for a job well done. But Trillium, a watchdog company dedicated to sustainable investment, sees things differently—it released a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on Friday requesting an investigation into Chevron’s report and asserting that Chevron's shareholders are being misled about the company's finances. Chevron, the letter says, tells its investors that the lawsuit is "fraudulent" and of no consequence, but then refers to the "irreparable damage" such legal conflict will have on its company. "This is not the first time that we have felt that the confidence of [Chevron] may be overstated," says Trillium’s Shelley Alpern.

Warmer Ocean Fueling Tornadoes

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:25 PM EDT

Tornado.: NOAA/WikimediaTornado. NOAA/Wikimedia


The stats on tornadoes so far this year are horrifying. A record-breaking 482 people (and ABC News reports 1,500 are unaccounted for in Joplin, Missouri) have been confirmed killed as of 24 May.

We know that spring's a bad season for tornadoes. We know that La Niña years fuel stormy Aprils. But 2011 is redefining even those parameters.
 

Preliminary map of April 2011 tornado tracks.: National Weather ServicePreliminary map of April 2011 tornado tracks. National Weather Service


Here's what NOAA has to say about last month alone:

  • April 2011 set anew record with a total of 875 tornadoes.
  • The previous April record was set in 1974 with 267 tornadoes.
  • The average number of tornadoes for the month of April during the past decade was 161.
  • The previous record number of tornadoes duringany month was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
  • NWS [National Weather Service] records indicate 321 people were killed during the April 25-28 tornado outbreak.
  • NWS records indicate 361 people were killed during the entire month of April 2011.
     

April 14, 2011 tornado over Tushka, Oklahoma.: Credit: Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin, NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.April 14, 2011 tornado over Tushka, Oklahoma. Gabe Garfield and Marc Austin/NOAA


Leading up to April's extreme tornadoes were some extreme temperatures, noted Stu Ostro, Senior Meteorologist at the Weather Channel:

The temperature in Laredo reached 111 degrees the day prior to the peak [April] outbreak, the hottest on record at that location for so early in the season. Precipitation extremes have been extreme even by extreme precipitation standards, with April rainfall upwards of 20" in Arkansas and record levels on some rivers in the central US, juxtaposed with an exceptionally large amount of Texas being classified in extreme or exceptional drought.
 

May 22 storm moments before the Joplin tornado formed. : NOAAMay 22 storm moments before the Joplin tornado formed. NOAA


Now May is racing to catch up to and maybe even pass April. Here's what NOAA finds so far:

  • The National Weather Service's preliminary estimate is more than 100 tornadoes have occurred during the month of May 2011.
  • The record number of tornadoes during the month of May was 542 tornadoes set in May 2003.
  • The average number of tornadoes for the month of May during the past decade is 298.
  • May is historically the most active month for tornadoes.

As I write, reports are rolling in about a new round of tornadoes—and deaths—in Oklahoma.
 

The 1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado.: Credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.The 1965 Elkhart, Indiana double tornado. NOAA

 

Sunday's horrific twister at Joplin, Missouri, was likely a multiple vortex tornado, says Thomas Schwein, deputy director of the National Weather Service’s Central Region, reports the Kansas City Star.

Jeff Masters' WunderBlog describes the Joplin tornado's nine-minute path thus:

A violent high-end EF-4* [Enhanced Fujita Scale] tornado [initial assessment] with winds of 190-198 mph carved a 7-mile long, 3/4 to one mile-wide path of near-total destruction through Joplin beginning at 5:41pm CDT Sunday evening.

*UPDATE: After surveying the Joplin tornado track, the NWS announced that its winds exceeded 200 miles per hour. This makes it the fourth EF-5 tornado this year, according to WonderBlog—and the most costly ever. Initial estimates: $1-3 billion.
 


You can get a sense of what that monster was like from this video—which due to darkness is mostly only audio. It's honestly one of the scariest things I've ever listened to.

You can hear the tornado rolling in about 01:20 into the video (perhaps the first of the multiple vortices?), then really winding up at 01:59. But that's nothing. At 03:00 all hell breaks lose.
 

An F5 tornado. Credit: Justin Hobson (Justin1569 at en.wikipedia), via Wikimedia Commons.: An F5 tornado. Credit: Justin Hobson (Justin1569 at en.wikipedia), via Wikimedia Commons.An F5 tornado. Justin Hobson/Wikimedia.


So what's fueling this year's record-breaking tornado season? There are the usual suspects, which the Cliff Mass Weather Blog lists as:

  • Strong Instability
  • Large Vertical Wind Shear
  • Low Level Moisture
  • Lift

His blog does a great job of explaining those in detail.
 

Sea surface temperature contours in the Gulf of Mexico between May 20 and May 22, 2011.: NOAASea surface temperature contours in the Gulf of Mexico between May 20 and May 22, 2011. NOAA
And then there are sea surface temperatures.

Unusually warm surface waters in the Gulf of Mexico—about 2 degrees Fahrenheit/3.6 degrees Celsius warmer than normal—may be a factor in this season's tornado frequency and strength, according to National Weather Service director Jack Hayes. Add that to an uncommonly southward jet stream track, reports Scientific American, and you've got a recipe for the kinds of disasters we've been seeing so far this year.
 

Hurricane Isabel.: NASAHurricane Isabel. NASA/Wikimedia


Warmer sea surface temperatures are also one of three reasons NOAA is forecasting a 65 percent chance of an above normal season—characterized as 13 or more named storms, 7 or more hurricanes, and 3 or more major hurricanes—in the Atlantic this year.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.