Blue Marble - May 2011

Massey Energy Caused Blast, Report Says

| Thu May. 19, 2011 11:39 AM PDT

"Something bad is going to happen," Gary Quarles, a worker inside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia, told at least three people on Easter weekend last year. Large parts of the mine had filled with water, impeding the flow of air that would normally remove dangerous accumulations of methane. And there wasn't enough crew and functioning equipment to tamp down clouds of explosive coal dust. As workers returned to the mine on April 5th, some of them commented that it was stuffy and miserably hot inside. At around 3 p.m. that afternoon, a massive explosion ripped through the shaft and killed 29 men—the worst mining accident in 40 years.

The recollections of Quarles and other surviving miners feature prominently in a damning report on the UBB disaster released today. Put together by an independent team of investigators appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, it reads less like a government tome at times than a nonfiction novella. Quarles, who is described as a big man and "a good guy" preoccupied by a divorce and the welfare of his two children, is the narrative's Cassandra. "When I get up in the mornings, I don't want to put my shoes on," he tells a friend. "I'm just scared to death to go to work."

The investigation firmly pins blame for the accident on Massey. "The story of Upper Big Branch is a cautionary tale of hubris," it concludes. "A company that was a towering presence in the Appalachian coalfields operated its mines in a profoundly reckless manner, and 29 coal miners paid with their lives for the corporate risk-taking."

The report's blunt tone reflects the clearer picture that has emerged since investigators began probing the causes of the accident more than a year ago. But it also underscores Massey's faded political clout. In January, Massey was acquired by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources in a deal that made Alpha the nation's second-largest coal company while retiring Massey's tarnished name.

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Why Gas is Charlie Sheen to Electricity's Dick Clark

| Thu May. 19, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

Over at NRDC's Switchboard blog, my friend Max Baumhefner has a pretty cool little electric-car-related post comparing oil prices to electricity prices over time. The whole thing is worth reading; there's a lot of great detail and chart renderings to geek out on if that's your thang. But the basic point is that while oil prices jump up and down in accordance with geopolitical events, electricity prices remain relatively stable.

Check out this chart by the Energy Information Administration (EIA):

Now look at this chart about electricity prices over the same time period:

You can see that electricity doesn't correlate nearly as much with the news, but it's a little hard to compare since the Y-axes are so different. Here's how Max sums it up:

Electricity is made from a diverse supply of largely domestic fuels, and its price is closely regulated by public utilities commissions.  Accordingly, the price of electricity doesn’t care if workers strike in Venezuela or if rebel forces make progress in Libya.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the price of oil spiked, and the price of electricity continued a gradual twenty-year decline. While the price of oil increased almost tenfold following the Asian economic crisis in 1997 until its peak in 2008, the price of electricity increased about 12%. 

In short, the price of oil reads the morning’s headlines and freaks out, while the price of electricity is blissfully ignorant and kinda boring. Which would you rather depend on to fuel your car?

Or as another friend who has a way with celebrity analogies put it, oil prices are like Charlie Sheen to electricity's Dick Clark. Eh? 

Rockabye Baby, in the Flame Retardant Foam

| Wed May. 18, 2011 1:38 PM PDT

Children are still coming into contact with a carcinogenic chemical eliminated from pajamas 30 years ago—through mattresses, high chairs, and car seats, among other baby products still on the market today. Eighty percent of the products tested contained flame-retardant chemicals, according to research published today in Environmental Science & Technology, meaning that wee ones are still surrounded by substances long ago deemed too dangerous.

The researchers tested 101 baby products and found that the vast majority "contained a known and identifiable flame retardant." Many of them contained chemicals that have been flagged as carcinogens. The products they tested included changing table pads, infant sleep positioners, portable crib mattresses, nursery rocking chairs, baby walkers, baby carriers, and children's bathroom items.

Thirty-six percent of the samples contained the chemical TDCPP, also known as chlorinated Tris, which was the substance removed from pajamas due to concerns about cancer back in the 1970s. Both the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission have flagged the chemical. Five of the samples showed evidence that they contained PentaBDE, a substance so toxic that 172 countries and 12 states have banned it. Fifteen products contained TCEP, another flame retardant cited for cancer risks. Some of the chemicals have also been cited as causing tumors, reproductive problems, and hormone disruption.

The consumer advocacy group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families points to the report as the latest evidence that our federal chemical policy needs to be overhauled; while hazardous, these chemicals aren't regulated under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act that governs our federal policy. Companies that manufacture these products don't even have to disclose that they're using them. Many times, the companies that actually sell the products may not even know. As the study's authors write, "Many of the chemical ingredients in flame retardant mixtures are proprietary and are not disclosed by the chemical manufacturers, even to manufacturers using these chemicals in their final end products (e.g., furniture)."

The Senate GOP's Plan to Shield Big Oil From Suits

| Wed May. 18, 2011 10:08 AM PDT

I'm having a hard time getting hyped up about the various and sundry oil-related bills swirling around the Hill. There's the Democrats' plan to end oil subsidies, which failed in the Senate yesterday, and the Republican plan to drill everywhere and anywhere, which goes to a vote later today.

It's the same old story line: Dems want to cut subsidies, Republicans accuse them of trying to increase gas prices, and then Republicans in turn offer a bill centered on the false premise that domestic drilling is going to do anything to change oil prices. But one particular provision in the GOP's "Offshore Production and Safety Act of 2011" is just outrageous enough to get my goat. In addition to expanding offshore drilling, the bill would potentially give BP and other oil companies an unfair advantage in all lawsuits related to the Gulf of Mexico.

The measure would deem the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, located in New Orleans, the "exclusive venue" for all civil suits dealing with energy projects in the Gulf. That's a problem because the court is stocked with judges who have financial holdings or other ties to the oil and gas industry. That means lawsuits would be relegated to a particularly sympathetic court, no matter what jurisdiction the company is based in or where the incident that prompted the suit occurred.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) issued a statement Wednesday on why this particular provision is problematic:

Damage claims from environmental disasters should be heard in the states affected. This provision would hurt the rights of those in Florida, Alabama, and elsewhere, and set a dangerous precedent. States’ rights were once a bipartisan concern. Senate Republicans now seem to be turning their back on states’ rights to let Big Oil stack the deck in a federal court.
The majority of active judges serving on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals have a financial interest in energy corporations that would likely require their recusal in a lawsuit filed under this proposed legislation. I will not support this ill-conceived attempt to stack the deck against victims of environmental disasters, while also undercutting our current regulations, ignoring safety and environmental protections, and setting arbitrary timelines for drilling permits.

The GOP's bill is expected to fail when it goes to a vote this afternoon—good reason, perhaps, to be grateful for the Senate's inability to pass anything.

How KFC and the Tea Party Kill Tigers

| Wed May. 18, 2011 3:00 AM PDT
The World Wildlife Fund captured two tigers on camera deep in the forest of central Sumatra, which is threatened by loggers.

Over at Yale E360, you can watch a great World Wildlife Fund video showing the areas of the Sumatran rainforest slated to be logged in the near future. Sumatra is home to a pretty astounding array of wildlife, including rhinos, orangutans and tigers. Last week, WWF released rare footage of 12 critically endangered tigers in the area, including a mom and two cubs. Only about 400 Sumatran tigers are left in the world. 

The video mentions one particular company responsible for much of the Indonesian rainforest destruction: Asia Pulp & Paper, a major subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, an Indonesian mega-conglommerate known for its cozy relationship with the Suharto family. APP's realm of influence is truly vast: The 5 million tons of paper it produces annually are sold in 65 countries on six continents.

APP has long been on environmentalists' radar; it has been accused of illegal logging in Cambodia and Indonesia, and a 2008 investigation by the rainforest advocacy group Eyes on the Forest suggested that companies connected to APP had illegally built a road through a part of Sumatra that was one of the world's biggest carbon stores.

And yet APP still has a firm hold on the US paper market. According to Greenpeace, KFC and several other fast-food chains owned by Yum Brands are among its major US buyers. And it enjoys political support, too: In March, the New York Times reported that the Tea Party-affiliated group Institute for Liberty has been lobbying to protect APP's right to sell paper products to the US without having to pay tarrifs. (The Insitute for Liberty is known for its massive pro-business astroturfing efforts;it has defended Monsanto's right to sell genetically modified alfalfa, and MoJo's Stephanie Mencimer recently reported on its campaign against net neutrality.)

APP has tried to spiff up its environmental rep with a major PR push; its website claims that it is "committed to protecting biological diversity, particularly with regards to native plant species, Sumatran tigers, elephants, orangutans, birds and other animals." The site also brags that APP's carbon footprint is "remarkably close to neutral." But last year, the Rainforest Action Network revealed that APP's calculations of its footprint are sorely lacking, since they don't take into consideration the carbon-storing peatlands that APP has destroyed.

Despite the greenwashing, APP's lousy environmental track record finally seems to be catching up with it; several American chains, including Staples, Office Depot, and Target, recently ended their contracts with the paper giant. Will others follow suit before it's too late for the tigers?

Front page image: Brian Scott/Flickr

Fla. Doctors Refusing Fat Women OB/GYN Care

| Tue May. 17, 2011 3:23 PM PDT

A recent survey by the Florida Sun-Sentinel found that 15 of 105 OB/GYN practices in South Florida refuse to take on new patients who are overweight. Some practices limited new patients by weight (200lbs and heavier, for example) or by BMI score. Reasons cited included equipment that couldn't handle the weight of obese or overweight patients, increased risk of birth complications, the high cost of malpractice insurance, and a fear that the patient would eventually have to be referred to a specialist anyway. "People don't realize the risk we're taking by taking care of these patients," Dr. Albert Triana told the Sun-Sentinel. Triana's firm declines obese patients. "There's more risk of something going wrong and more risk of getting sued. Everything is more complicated with an obese patient in GYN surgeries and in [pregnancies]."

There's some truth in the doctors' concerns. Rising obesity rates have been blamed for contributing to the US's rising maternal mortality rate. Part of this could be because obese women are more likely to have a Caesarian section, which carries with it all the risks that would accompany another major operation such as infection and hemorrhage. In addition, medical malpractice insurance is very expensive, which is why more C-sections are performed in the first place: they avoid potential damage to the baby associated with vaginal birth that doctors could later be sued for. In fact, the C-section rate for some South Florida doctors is 70%, much higher than the US national average of around 30%. 

That said, it's a doctor's duty to provide health care, regardless of the health of the individual. Some of the practices surveyed said that they wouldn't take one patients who were overweight, even if they were healthy. Unfortunately, the practice of weight discrimination is legal, and doctors' poor treatment of obese or overweight patients is not a new thing. One study from Temple University found that more than half of doctors found obese patients "ugly" and "noncompliant" and more than a third characterized them as "weak-willed" and "lazy." The larger the patient, the more doctors disliked them. "Obesity lives in a politically correct free zone and is the last ... prejudice openly accepted by society," Dr. Joseph Madjan of Boulder, Colorado, told a local paper. Madjan should know: he was once overweight himself and was teased often for it... by his fellow doctors.

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How Safe Are TSA's Porno Scanners?

| Tue May. 17, 2011 3:21 PM PDT

Undejj/Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc /WikimediaUndejj/Brijot Imaging Systems, Inc /WikimediaAn interesting new round in the airport scanner wars: Why won't TSA make its scanners available for independent scientific assessment—the same kind of assessment required for medical imaging machines?

That's the question asked of White House science adviser John Holdren by five researchers at UC San Francisco and one at Arizona State University in a letter titled, There is Still no Rigorous Hard Data for the Safety of X-Ray Airport Passenger Scanners. From ProPublica:

There are two types of body scanners. Millimeter wave machines emit a radio frequency similar to cellphones. Backscatters work like a fast-moving X-ray. In the latter, the rays bounce off the skin and create a fuzzy white image of the passenger's body. Because the beam doesn't go through the body, most of its radiation is received by the skin. The TSA says the backscatter technology has been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institute for Standards and Technology and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Survey teams are using radiation-detecting dosimeters to check the machines at airports. The TSA says the results have all confirmed that the scanners don't pose a significant risk to public health.

In another letter to Holdren last year, the same group argued that though the overall dose may be low, no one had yet quantified the dose to the skin. Officials from the FDA and TSA responded by releasing a study last last estimating that though the dose to the skin was twice the dose to the body it was still extremely low. But in their latest letter, the UCSF et al researchers note that Johns Hopkins didn't test an actual airport machine but a model built by the manufacturer configured to resemble a system previously tested by the TSA. Worse, according to ProPublica:

The researchers' names have been kept secret, and the report on the tests is so "heavily redacted" that "there is no way to repeat any of these measurements."  The physics and medical professors also took issue with the device used to measure the radiation. Although the device, known as an ion chamber, is commonly used to test medical equipment, they argue that the detector gets overwhelmed by the amount of radiation the backscatter deposits in a short time and might not provide accurate readings.

Here are a few excerpts from the latest letter to Holdren, by John Sedat, professor emeritus in biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, et al:

  • "The document is heavily redacted with red stamps over the words and figures. In every case the electric current used which correlates one to one with X-ray dose has been specifically redacted. Thus there is no way to repeat any of these measurements."
  • "The tests were performed by the manufacturer using the manufacturer's questionable test procedures. Although the doses from... screening are potentially low, the dose rates are very high, comparable to dose rates in CT machines."
  • "Also the X-ray tube current used in the tests or in the airport setting, that correlates directly with X-ray intensity has always been redacted... Not having access to the current used in the JHU [John Hopkins University] test, or in the field application of the scanner means that the measurements at JHU are irrelevant to the dose at the airport."
  • "The statement in the HHS [Health and Human Services] letter that the fluence is not a relevant quantity ignores fundamental physics."
  • The whole issue of software was not addressed. Since this kind of instrumentation is critically controlled by software, a careful analysis of the source code is essential. How was the software qualified? How do we know if there is a 'region of interest' when intensity, for better resolution, is increased/changed? Can the intensity of the beam on different machines/airport scanners be changed, for example? Thus, how rigorously are the values of intensity or beam current maintained or dialed up or down to adapt to particularly suspicious subjects?

Backscatter imaging. Credit: TSA, via Wikimedia Commons.Backscatter imaging. Credit: TSA/Wikimedia

If you've been following the amazing series of New York Times articles reporting over the past few months on lethal mistakes in the software and other problems associated with X-ray imaging and therapy machines, then you'll know something of what that last bullet point refers to.

Here are a few more excerpts from the letter, including the meaning of patent changes and the difference in testing standards between airport scanners and other technologies requiring extensive safety vetting:

Finally, there is the issue of the recently disclosed patent... filed two years ago. This patent covers operation of a two-sided system in which each side has a source and a detector, and includes the ability to record a 'shadow' image generated by transmission from one side, being received on the other side, implying significant X-ray transmission capability (in addition to the backscatter mode) as well as the ability to compare stored images, which was claimed previously but was not done. What does the new capability mean for the configuration and modalities for those X-ray airport scanners already installed?  Are the intensities of the beam now changed?  How can one be confident that the scanners are in a known configuration, not continually changed (changing) with different X-ray doses?

In summary, the independent testing of the safety of these specific scanners has not been rigorous nor has it been held to the standards usually associated with new devices before approval for utilization in the public sector.  Usually the exact technology, as installed, is sent to a university, national laboratory or other outside facility that has the expertise to test, for an extended period of time to enable an in-depth study—usually by several independent groups. Different test equipment, optimal for this configuration, can be used at a site that specializes in the potential problems of this technology.  The hardware and software is tested in all aspects, finally arriving at a place where the true capabilities of this system are totally known, similar to testing of new aircraft, spacecraft and other technology that impacts on a national level.

The authors conclude by suggesting a rethink of the notion that damaging ionizing radiation is the best way to search for damaging weapons.

Finally, to end on a positive note, there are alternatives, that do not use ionizing radiation and that not only accomplish the same goal but also would be more effective. For example, scattering of high frequency electromagnetic waves, which are not ionizing radiation, is much more sensitive to differences between human tissue and high explosives.  As another example, it is now possible to use a hand-held nanotechnology-based device that detects many/most high explosives with a sensitivity significantly surpassing a sniffer dog, the "Gold Standard".... Rather than deploy systems that have the serious unknowns and potential shortcomings described above, why not use the great resources of our National Laboratories and our world-renowned entrepreneurial spirit to develop appropriate technologies that will reliably detect explosives and weapons that do not rely on invasive imaging?

I'll take the pat-down, thank you.

Bikers Weather Pollution Better Than Drivers

| Tue May. 17, 2011 12:04 PM PDT

On the heels of Bike-to-Work Day comes this excellent little bit of news: Bike commuters are less affected by air pollution than car and bus commuters, according to a new study published in the journal Epidemiology. The researchers found that even though bikers were exposed to more air pollution than vehicle passengers, their airways were less inflamed after the commute:

The Netherlands' researchers measured three factors related to breathing ability – lung function, airway resistance and airway inflammation – among healthy, 18- to 56-year-old volunteers before and after they commuted for two hours by bus, car or bicycle. These measures were related to estimates of two sizes of particles (PM2.5 and PM10), the number of particles in the air and soot the commuters inhaled.

[...]

Car and bus commuters experienced more inflammation based on the amount of particles present and soot concentrations. While bicycle commuting exposed participants to higher levels of pollution, health effects were not changed among the bikers.

No word on why this is the case, but I'm tempted to chalk it up to the superior lung capacity of bikers.

 

Another Chink in Climate Skeptics' Armor

| Mon May. 16, 2011 11:34 AM PDT

The "report" that House climate skeptics commissioned back in 2005 to debunk long-term warming patterns appears to be falling apart at the seams.

As I wrote here a few months ago, evidence has emerged that staffers for Rep. "Smokey" Joe Barton (R-Texas) worked closely with the "independent" statistician they asked to review the famed hockey stick graph that shows temperatures over the past millennium. The report sided with critics of the graph and accused climate scientists of uncritically reinforcing each other's work, and has been touted by climate change deniers ever since. (It also makes an appearance in my feature on the "Climategate" affair.)

That statistician has also been under investigation for possibly plagiarizing portions of that report, and of making all kind of other off-base factual claims in the report. Now the journal that published it has retracted the piece, Dan Vergano at USA Today reports. After presenting the report to Congress, George Mason University statistician Edward Wegman published it in the journal Computational Statistics and Data Analysis. Now the journal is pulling it:

The journal publisher's legal team "has decided to retract the study," said CSDA journal editor Stanley Azen of the University of Southern California, following complaints of plagiarism. A November review by three plagiarism experts of the 2006 congressional report for USA TODAY also concluded that portions contained text from Wikipedia and textbooks. The journal study, co-authored by Wegman student Yasmin Said, detailed part of the congressional report's analysis.
"Neither Dr. Wegman nor Dr. Said has ever engaged in plagiarism," says their attorney, Milton Johns, by e-mail. In a March 16 e-mail to the journal, Wegman blamed a student who "had basically copied and pasted" from others' work into the 2006 congressional report, and said the text was lifted without acknowledgment and used in the journal study. "We would never knowingly publish plagiarized material" wrote Wegman, a former CSDA journal editor.

In a follow-up post, Vergano also talks to experts on the report's statistical claims and finds that it was wrong on that front, too.

So the report was wrong about global warming, plagiarized in part from Wikipedia and the work of others, and statistically flawed. But here's the best part: It was funded by your tax dollars and given the seal of congressional approval!

The blogger Deep Climate, who has been behind a lot of the muckraking on the Wegman report, has more.

The Wegman report would be old news if climate deniers weren't continually bringing it up in their attacks on climate science. Virginia's crusading attorney general, Ken Cuccinelli, has evoked it repeatedly in his attempts smear climate scientist Michael Mann. Will this latest news finally kill the Wegman report zombie once and for all?

Have Nut Allergies Been Cured?

| Mon May. 16, 2011 2:30 AM PDT

Growing up in the '80s and '90s, I was the only kid I knew who was allergic to nuts. I remember explaining to a skeptical teacher why I couldn't eat the walnut brownies she'd brought for us one day. "But how do you know you won't like them if you won't even try?" she asked. Times have changed. You'd be hard pressed to find a gradeschool teacher now who wasn't well versed in EpiPens and anaphylactic shock; some school cafeterias are now nut-free zones. Indeed, nut allergies are on the rise. Last May, researchers at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine found that the rate of childhood peanut allergy had more than tripled in recent years, up from .4 percent in 1997 to 1.4 percent in 2008.

No one is quite sure why allergies are becoming more common. One theory called the hygiene hypothesis speculates that the environment in developed countries is actually too clean: Since children no longer encounter the full array of germs and parasites they once did, their immune systems instead busy themselves reacting to pollens, molds, and certain proteins in foods. (In developing countries allergy rates are vanishingly tiny.) The allergy onslaught has also been linked to climate change; immunologists have long connected the rise in hay fever cases to global warming, and in 2008 an Ausrtralian researcher suggested (PDF) that climbing temperatures could be making certain foods more allergenic as well.

When I was diagnosed with nut allergies as a baby, my parents were told there wasn't much they could do about it, short of keeping me away from the offending foods and carrying an epinephrine shot in case I accidentally ate something nutty and developed an anaphylactic reaction. But in the past few years, pioneering immunologists have been experimenting with a new therapy for nut-allergic kids. Called oral immunotherapy or desensitization, it exposes patients to gradually increasing doses of nuts, with the aim of increasing their tolerance. The results so far have been promising. In the first study of the technique at Duke University, five out of seven participants were able to tolerate eating the equivalent of 13 peanuts by the end of the roughly two-year trial. Subsequent studies of other nuts, eggs, and milk, have shown similarly positive outcomes.

So will allergic kids soon be able to shed their EpiPens and MedicAlert bracelets? And will I get to order pad thai without all my friends chorusing to the poor waitress, "No nuts please!"? 

For the inside scoop, I spoke with Dr. Jeffrey Factor, who runs the New England Food Allergy Treatment Center, an oral immunotherapy clinic in West Hartford, Connecticut. Since last November, Factor has been treating 40 peanut allergy sufferers between the ages of 5 and 20. Here's what the process entails: On the first day, the patient comes into the clinic and ingests a minuscule amount of peanut flour (while hooked up to an IV so that epinephrine can be administered if needed). The dose of peanut flour is increased every half hour until it reaches 6 miligrams of peanut protein. Then, at home, over the course of the next two weeks, the patient takes a daily dose of 6 miligrams of peanut flour mixed into applesauce or pudding. After that, he or she comes in for a "dose escalation," so the clinic staff can monitor for reactions. The process repeats, with gradually increasing doses, for 20-24 weeks, at which point most patients reach the equivalent protein of 2-3 peanuts.

So far, the results have been encouraging: Some patients have progressed more slowly than others, but several are one or two doses away from being able to tolerate 2-3 peanuts. Factor hasn't had to treat any of the patients with epinephrine or drop anyone from the study because of systemic reactions. Still, he's careful to note that even the patients who reach the maintenance dose are still advised to avoid peanuts. Their allergies are not cured, just better controlled.

A few caveats: Since the therapy isn't covered by insurance it costs patients a whopping $5,000 out of pocket. Plus, so far, the trials have been limited to children. Factor, who is himself allergic to tree nuts, would like to see the therapy expanded to adults in the near future. But even if it is, it's unlikely that I'll ever be able to skip the "Are there nuts in that?" part of dining out. "The goal is not a cure," he says. "The goal is peace of mind about reactions." Peace of mind might not taste as good as pad thai, but you know what? I'd probably take it.

Correction appended: An earlier version of this story stated that patients received peanut flour through an IV on the first day of treatment. Actually, all peanut flour is ingested orally. We regret the error.

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