Blue Marble - June 2011

A Nuclear Situation in Nebraska?

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:09 PM EDT

The internet has been making much ado about the flooding currently affecting a Nebraska nuclear power plant. But via the Associated Press, it appears that, at least for now, the plant isn't suffering major problems:

Missouri River floodwater seeped into the turbine building at a nuclear power plant near Omaha on Monday, but plant officials said the seepage was expected and posed no safety risk because the building contains no nuclear material.
An 8-foot-tall, water-filled temporary berm protecting the plant collapsed early Sunday. Vendor workers were at the plant Monday to determine whether the 2,000 foot berm can be repaired.
Omaha Public Power District spokesman Jeff Hanson said pumps were handling the problem at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station and that "everything is secure and safe." The plant, about 20 miles north of Omaha, has been closed for refueling since April. Hanson said the berm's collapse didn't affect the shutdown or the spent fuel pool cooling.

The Missouri River flooding is no joke; neither is a power plant sitting in two feet of water. It's certainly a situation worth keeping an eye on, but doesn't appear to be a crisis. Given the crisis at a nuclear plant following the tsunami in Japan just a few months, it's easy to see why people are jumpy. But remember: The problem at Fukushima was that the earthquake and tsunami wiped out the main electrical supply and screwed up the battery back-ups, which caused the cooling system to fail. The loss of power was the disastrous part.

Now it's a concern that the berms that were supposed to protect the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station apparently failed, and that they had to rely on back-up power for about 12 hours. But as the Iowa Independent explains, for now it appears safe:

The Calhoun plant was built at 1,004 feet mean sea level, and can sustain flood waters up to 1,014 feet. On Sunday, when the dam broke, the Missouri River was at roughly 1,006.5 feet near the Calhoun station. If floodwaters reach 1,009 feet, the plant would likely switch from the lowest level of emergency status (where it has been since June 6) to the second of four emergency levels. Based on the latest figures given by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is gauging the release of water from dams upstream, flooding near Calhoun should peak at 1,008 feet.

This should, however, stand as a reminder that our own infrastructure is also vulnerable to the whims of natures.

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Fast Food's Litter Legacy

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

If Iron Eyes Cody (the "crying Indian" of the '70s anti-littering commercials) were alive today, he would almost certainly shed a few tears about this news: Litter from fast-food chains is spreading far and wide. When a team from the environmental nonprofit Clean Water Action surveyed litter in four cities in the San Francisco Bay Area, it found that trash from four restaurants (McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's, and Starbucks) and one convenience store (7-11) made up more than half of the litter it collected. 

Miriam Gordon, Clean Water Action's California director, was careful to note that the survey was "not comprehensive; it was just a snapshot of trash in four communities." But its implications are big, since McNuggets boxes and Big Gulp cups dropped in the Bay Area often find their final resting place in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the giant gyre of trash that floats in North Central Pacific, between California and Hawaii. According to Gordon, 80 percent of the patch's trash comes from land-based sources. And it's growing: In 1999, a researcher who surveyed the patch found six times more plastic than plankton. By 2009, there was 40 times more plastic than plankton.

Some communities are wising up to the litter problem. Several cities in California and a few in DC's Potomac Basin are aiming to get rid of litter before it enters creeks and storm drains by installing trash capture devices in the storm drains and ramping up litter collection. But "this will be costly from a taxpayer perspective, " says Gordon. "The real environmental solutions come from reducing trash at the source." Clean Water Action estimates that as much as 31 percent of the trash it collected could have been eliminated if restaurants allowed customers to bring in reusable food and drink containers.

Easier said than done. I asked McDonald's whether it allows customers to bring in reusable food and beverage containers. No dice. "[A customer's container] could introduce a risk of cross-contamination by accepting items back across the counter and it being in contact with our kitchen equipment and employees," wrote Jill Scandridge, McDonalds' director of public affairs, in an email. "There is no way to ensure that it meets necessary sanitation standards for being in contact with food."

Fair enough. It's understandable that McDonald's would want to be extra careful; no one wants a salmonella outbreak. But some of the other chains I talked to do allow reusables: Some 7-11 stores sell reusable cups for "proprietary beverages" like the Big Gulp. Starbucks has allowed its customers to bring their own cups since 1985, and in 2000, a company task force estimated that it could save $1 million a year by encouraging customers to bring in reusable mugs. The coffee giant recently pledged to serve its 25 percent of its beverages in renewable cups by 2015.

When I asked San Francisco's health department whether it considers reusable containers a health risk, the answer was no. "Currently, there is no official state or local public health policy on bringing reusable food containers into restaurants," wrote Richard Lee, director of San Francisco's environmental health regulatory programs, in an email. "In general, we don't think this would be a likely public health hazard, because it is unlikely that members of the public would put themselves at risk using dirty or contaminated containers." Restaurants can take precautions to reduce the chances of contamination; for example, Lee notes that SF health-department codes specify that reusable cups should not touch the beverage-dispensing spigot.

Clearly a switch to reusables at fast-food joints like McDonald's would require a pretty dramatic shift in consumer behavior. And I'm not suggesting that everyone bring old Tupperwares to tote their Big Macs. But it would be nice if more fast food chains encouraged people to BYO cups for soda or coffee. McDonald's serves more than 58 million customers every day. That's a lot of cups, lids, and straws that the ocean could probably do without.

Gem of the Week: Humpback 'Bubble Nets' More Complex

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 6:01 PM EDT

With warming oceans and less prey, humpback whales have to be innovative to catch a full meal these days. Recent research by NOAA's David Wiley shows just how fine-tuned their hunting techniques are. Wiley gets this week's "gem" for revealing a new level of complexity and forethought in the whale's hunting strategy.

Humpbacks feed on densely-packed prey like krill or small fish that travel in schools like herring and mackerel. One of the ways they corral their prey is to create "bubble nets", vertical columns of bubbles that fish see as a barrier. By creating spirals of bubbles, the whales restrict their prey to a smaller sphere of movement, making them easier to scoop into their huge mouths. Wiley was aware of the whale's sophisticated use of bubbles to concentrate prey density and thus more efficient feeding, but in his latest study (published in Behaviour this week), he used sensors attached to the whales which captured the bubble nets in action in 3D.

As Wiley created a computer-generated 3D model of the nets, he found that the nets sometimes consisted of a previously unknown tactic called "double loops". Working in teams of at least two, the double loop consists of "one upward spiral [of bubbles] to corral the prey, a smack of the fluke on the ocean surface (known as a 'lobtail') then a second upward lunge to capture the corralled prey." Wiley also found that despite the humpback's use of teamwork as a species, some individual humpbacks were not immune to "stealing" fish from bubble nets set up by other whales. It seems the best bubble net, even a double looped one, could be foiled by a hungry interloper.

 

Will Obama Take US to 60 MPG?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 4:53 PM EDT

President Obama announced on Thursday that the administration is releasing 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, the 727-million-barrel stockpile of crude that the US government keeps on hand in case of an emergency. It's an option that comes up every summer when gas prices start climbing, but this marks the first time since Hurricane Katrina that we've tapped the emergency reserve. The announcement generated a bunch of criticism from Republicans and renewed calls of "drill, baby, drill."

There are a few interesting things here. First, I can't say that I disagree entirely with the accusation that Obama's motivations were political. Everyone loves lower gas prices, and a week before a long holiday weekend is pretty interesting timing. But since gas prices have been trending downward of late, the move probably says more about broader economic concerns than anything else, as others have noted. In either case, it's only a short-term fix.

Perhaps a better long-term solution would be improving the fuel efficiency of vehicles, so people don't have to buy as much gas. More oil, either from the SPR or increased drilling, doesn't help a whole lot. The Obama administration is at work on the next round of fuel economy standards, set to be released in September, for model years 2016 and beyond. The last standards increase required auto dealers to hit a fleet-wide average for light vehicles (like passenger cars) of 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016, up from the previous average of 27.5 miles per gallon. Enviros have been lobbying the administration to set a goal of getting to 60 miles per gallon in the next 15 years—which they argue is entirely possible and would do far more than any short-term fix.

"Whether or not this band-aid stems any economic hemorrhaging due to our costly oil addiction," said Deron Lovaas, federal transportation policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, following the SPR announcement, "the President can and should provide real, lasting relief by boosting the fuel-efficiency of our car and truck fleet to 60 miles-per-gallon by 2025."

The enviros got support this week from a group of Republican former EPA heads and lawmakers, who wrote to Obama requesting the very same target. But will automakers, abide willingly? A spokesperson for Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers dismissed the letter as "a special interest campaign to achieve a politically motivated fuel economy number." I guess that would be a "no."

Climate Change: Bad News for Baby Boys?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 2:49 PM EDT

Ask the vicitms of horrific flooding in Pakistan or raging wildfires in the Southwest what the consequences of climate change are, and they're likely to mention something personal, like a lost family member or damaged property. But a University of California-Berkeley study out this month shows that the impacts of climate change could be biological, too.

Using 150-year-old Swedish family records and temperature data, public health professor Ralph Catalano and his colleagues suggest that rapid and wide temperature fluctuations (one of the expected effects of climate change) could lead to shorter lifespans for some men.

Generally, mothers are less likely to automatically miscarry male fetuses very early in gestation when it's warm, and more likely to do so when it's cold, because baby boys are more "frail" in early life than baby girls. But according to the study, warm temperatures could trick more newly-pregnant mothers—or rather, their bodies—into keeping male fetuses they might otherwise have rejected for genetic weakness. Although that would mean an increase in the total number of births, it would also lead to an increase in the number who die young if those baby boys then experience cold temperatures early on, thus driving down average life expectancy.

What's the Coal Pollution Risk in Your Life?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

Chances are, you've heard coal pollution statistics before. Like how, in one year, the typical coal plant produces 3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, 10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, and 170 pounds of mercury. But you may still be asking, "How do these numbers actually affect me?" 

Enter the Sierra Club, which just released a quiz that answers that question. In three simple steps, Coal in Your Life shows the number of ashtma attacks and deaths tied to coal-fired plants in your zip code, your mercury intake from seafood, and the routines that make you vulnerable to poor air quality, such as exercising outdoors. To test my risks, I tried three different zip codes I've called home. In my current city—pollution-conscious San Francisco—about 17 ashtma attacks and two deaths in 2010 were linked to coal-fired power plants. In New York City, the numbers were even scarier: About 785 asthma attacks and 55 deaths could be linked to coal pollution last year.

Finally, I tried my childhood home, Palm Beach County, where I found that 186 asthma attacks and 17 deaths resulted from power-plant pollution. The good news is, my hometown has just taken steps to improve its air quality. On Sunday morning, two oil-powered smokestacks from the '60s were demolished in Riviera Beach. (On my way to high school, I used to drive past their thick black billows every morning.) They will be replaced in 2014 with natural-gas smokestacks that burn 33 percent less fuel per megawatt hours.

In order to encourage the rest of the country to follow suit, the Sierra Club includes an easy link to email the Environmental Protection Agency. As a result of my message, the EPA now knows that I scored a five out of 10 on my exposure to pollution. Granted, two of those points come from the six servings of fish I eat per month. Perhaps it's time to cut back on the canned tuna

 

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Climate Change Side-Effect: Overworked Doctors?

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 3:34 PM EDT

A study published this week in science journal Climatic Change models how hospital admissions for things like diabetes, kidney stones, and suicide attempts will rise along with the temperature, something that's expected to happen as global warming increases the average yearly temperature and causes temperature swings. Those most at risk for climate-related hospital admittance (and resulting deaths) are the very young and the elderly, whose regulatory systems are less able to adapt to high temperatures. With a health care system that is already taxed, such an increase could overwhelm small hospitals or those with limited resources.

The authors of the study—from University of Wisconsin-Madison, Purdue University, and the National Center for Climatic Research—used 17 years of data from Milwaukee hospital admissions and found that hospital admissions for ailments involving the kidneys would increase 13% for every 2 degrees the mercury rose above 85 degrees Fahrenheit; endocrine disorders would increase by 9%. Accidents and suicide attempts would start increasing by about 3% for every 2 degrees over 81 degrees Fahrenheit. With temperatures projected to rise an average of 5 degrees in summer months, by 2059 this would mean hundreds of additional patients with heat-related renal and endocrine ailments in Milwaukee alone. Project that across the US, and that's a substantial increase in hospital traffic, and provider workloads, especially considering the aging Baby Boomer population.

The health effects of increasing temperatures would be especially felt by the elderly, who can't sweat as well as younger people, have weaker hearts, and may have other health problems that make them more susceptible to high or quickly changing temperatures. Children under age 5 would also be susceptible. The authors recommend that health care providers do what they can to prepare for these climate-related admissions. "Public health strategies should focus on prevention efforts by targeting groups at risk, especially the elderly" and those with pre-existing health conditions, they wrote.

No Pesticide Permit? No Problem!

| Thu Jun. 23, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Spraying herbicide near a Florida canal.

In 1996, the Talent Irrigation District in Oregon set out to kill off aquatic weeds in irrigation canals by spraying herbicides in the water. But in addition to a lot of dead weeds, it got a lot of dead fish—92,000 steelhead salmon. Since then, legal battles have raged over how the government should regulate pesticides used on or near waterways.

On Tuesday, pesticide users marked a possibly major victory in that battle, as a bill that would allow them to bypass the Clean Water Act and spray pesticides over waterways passed through the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee.

Currently, once a pesticide has been deemed safe by the EPA, there's nothing to compel users of the pesticide to follow guidelines in the Clean Water Act for minimizing how much pesticide makes it into streams, lakes, or other water bodies. But in the long wake of the Talent incident, in 2009 a federal court ordered the EPA to require pesticide users to get a permit before they could spray into water.

New Act Prohibits Minors Traveling for Abortions

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 7:13 PM EDT

Teens crossing state lines to get an abortion are the target of a new bill introduced today. The Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act (CIANA) looks fairly comprehensive and serious so far, though full text of the bill (S.1241) has not yet been released. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), however, did provide a joint press release that outlined the bill's main points. To summarize, the bill would:

--"prohibit... knowingly taking a minor across state lines with the intent of obtaining an abortion if this action evades the parental notification law in her home state." This could significantly increase the cost of travel for teens seeking an abortion. If a girl lived near a state border, she would be forced to seek an abortion in her state, even if there was a major city just on the other side of the river. In some states without much abortion access, this could be a real hardship.

--"would require abortion providers to notify a parent of an out-of-state minor before performing an abortion." Again, this could cause hardship on the girl getting an abortion because of the time involved for the provider to find and contact her parent. Also, what if the teen had a judicial bypass in her home state? Would it be honored?

--"CIANA allows for punishment, in the form of fines or imprisonment, of physicians who knowingly perform an abortion on a minor who has traveled across state lines..." As RH Reality Check points out, this bill could make providers more leery of performing abortions on girls at all. And it makes it in the best interests of the girl to lie about her residency or about the circumstances of her pregnancy.

On a legal note, it doesn't seem to be fair to ask one state to enforce every other state's laws. For example, you can buy raw milk all over California but it's strictly controlled in Oregon. It is not the job of all California retailers to do background checks to make sure everyone buying raw milk in California lives in California, or that the raw milk an Oregonian is buying would be legal by Oregon's standards. California is governed by California's laws. What CIANA seems to want to do is make doctors adhere not only to their own state's laws, but become legal experts and adhere to every other state's laws on parental consent and notification, which by the way, are constantly changing. Sen. Rubio says that the bill helps guarantee "states have the ability to enforce their laws" but it seems like he wants states to enforce other states' laws as well and punish them if they don't.

Pigs: Man's New Best Friend?

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 6:13 PM EDT

Last week, Mother Jones' Hannah Levintova reported on breast milk-producing cows in Argentina. Now researchers in Japan believe human organ-growing pigs could prove biomedicine’s next big thing. A team at the University of Tokyo implanted a kind of adult stem cell from rats into the embryos of mice genetically bred to be unable to grow their own pancreas. Lo and behold, by the time the mice matured, they possessed fully-developed pancreases formed primarily from the transferred cells.

The researchers are confident that the same methods can be applied to pigs and humans, whose comparable scales and genomic similarities have long made porcine valves a leading option for heart disease sufferers. The techniques employed with the rats and mice, they believe, could yield an abundant new source of human donor organs. In that scenario, a patient's stem cells would be injected into a pig embryo. Once developed over the course of a pig's roughly 16-week gestation period, the organs could be transplanted back into the patient. As a bonus, using a patient's own cells would likely help reduce the risk of rejection.