Blue Marble - June 2011

Note to Planned Parenthood Foes: They Also Help Women Have Healthy Babies

| Wed Jun. 8, 2011 12:37 PM EDT

Remember how Congressional Republicans tried to defund Planned Parenthood at the federal level, making a big deal about how they didn't want tax-payer dollars subsidizing abortions and whatnot? And how Indiana passed a bill cutting all funds for the organization, before the feds stepped in to block them, saying that the measure was discriminatory and illegal. Anyway, with all the Planned Parenthood bashing going on, it's worth noting that the organization also does a lot of work to help women have babies.

Of course, they're most well known for services like providing contraception, education, and yes, abortions, to help women (and men!) avoid unwanted pregnancies. But Planned Parenthood's critics never seem to mention everything that the organization does to help women have healthy babies, like a new program near Salinas, Calif. where PP's staff is helping farmworkers who want to have children protect themselves from exposure to harmful pesticides.

Jessica Dieseldorff, a nurse practitioner with PP, is leading the pilot education program, which the Bay Citizen recently reported on:

Dieseldorff and her co-workers have identified 40 patients who work in the fields and want to become pregnant in the next year. In addition to the usual advice—stop smoking, limit alcohol consumption and load up on prenatal vitamins—clinic staffers offer common-sense pointers on limiting pesticide exposure: Don’t eat the fruit you harvest before washing it. Wash hands before eating. Wash work clothes separately. Change clothes before getting in your car, entering your home, or hugging your kids.
Planned Parenthood staffers use brightly colored comic books, produced by the Texas-based Migrant Clinicians Network to drive the message home.

The US uses billions of pounds of pesticides on fruits, vegetables, and flowers, and the women who work in the fields are exposed more than anyone to these toxic chemicals. And as a recent University of California Berkeley School of Public Health study found, prenatal exposure to some of these pesticides is linked to lower IQ in children and other developmental delays. The study, which focused specifically on children living in Salinas, found that those with the highest levels of prenatal exposure to pesticides scored an average of seven points lower on standardized intelligence tests compared to children that had the lowest exposure levels.

And as the lead researcher points out, this exposure comes at a society-wide cost:

"These associations are substantial, especially when viewing this at a population-wide level," said study principal investigator Brenda Eskenazi, UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and of maternal and child health. "That difference could mean, on average, more kids being shifted into the lower end of the spectrum of learning, and more kids needing special services in school."

Many of the workers that Planned Parenthood is reaching out to are likely immigrants who speak limited English and don't have access to medical services and advice, so the work to avoid exposure in this population is especially important. It's also not the kind of PP work you hear its critics citing very often.

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So Where is Japan's Radiation Going?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 7:26 PM EDT

Japan's nuclear agency reported to the IAEA today that the nuclear fuel in three reactors at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant likely melted through the inner containment vessels and not just their cores in the aftermath of the March 11th earthquake and tsunami.

As MoJo's Kate Sheppard reported earlier today, Japan also more than doubled the estimate of the amount of radioactive materials released from Fukushima—from 370,000 to 770,000 terabecquerels.

Which makes the work of a research cruise just now underway to measure radioactivity in the ocean off Japan even more important.

This 15-day cruise is led by chief scientist Ken Buesseler of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and members of his lab, Café Thorium. They're joined by researchers and technicians from around the world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R/V Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa. Credit: NOAA.

 

The science crew of 17 is sailing aboard the research vessel Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa—the Hawaiian name means Heavenly Searcher of the Sea—a vessel of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory. You can check out some of their onboard toolkit here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Japan's damaged nuclear power plants in relation to the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. Credit: Maximilian Dörrbecker / Chumwa via Wikimedia Commons.

 

The failures of engineering at Fukushima, combined with Japan's spectacular disaster unpreparedeness, resulted in the largest ever accidental release of radiation to the environment. Much of that contamination washed into the Pacific. Additional airborne radioactivity likely further contaminated the ocean.

The team's mission statement:

The need to understand the amount, type, and fate of radioactive materials released prompted a group of scientists from the U.S., Japan, and Europe to organize the first multi-disciplinary, multi-institutional research cruise in the northwestern Pacific since the events of March and April. [We'll] spend two weeks... examining many of the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of the ocean that either determine the fate of radioactivity in the water or that are potentially affected by radiation in the marine environment.

They'll be sampling well out into the mighty Kuroshio Current, a rich highway for the marine life of the North Pacific. The isotopes/elements they're looking for are: iodine-131, cesium-137, plutonium, strontium, and tritium. For a map of their sampling stations, see my blog Deep Blue Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Krill. Credit:Øystein Paulsen via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Science Insider reports that marine biologist Nicholas Fisher from the State University of New York at Stony Brook is leading the effort to study how radioactivity wends its way through the marine foodweb:

Because 3 months have passed and most isotopes, particularly the short-lived iodine-131 with an 8-day half-life, have decayed considerably, he doesn't expect to see any toxicity. However, there will still be detectable levels in organisms such as brown seaweed, which can store iodine at 10,000 times the concentration in the water. Such a measure might help researchers understand how the isotopes move through the food chain, even up to seafood-eating humans.

Meanwhile Geoff Brumfiel & David Cyranoski at Nature News provide a great roundup of the ongoing challenges at Fukushima, including the ongoing grave reservations held by some researchers about the methods used.

[S]ome experts in Japan have expressed reservations about the decontamination process. Radioactive water will continue to flow from the cores into basements and trenches, and damage to the site means there will probably be further leaks. Ming Zhang, who studies environmental pollution risks at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Tsukuba, fears that contaminated water will end up in the ocean.

From the sounds of things, the Ka`imikai-o-Kanaloa has just made it to the first sampling stations. You can read bloglike updates from the cruise here.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Japan's Ongoing Nuclear Crisis

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 3:18 PM EDT

The Japanese nuclear agency has doubled its previous estimate of the amount of radiation released from the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Even with the increased estimate, the amount of radiation released since the disaster began on March 11 is only about 15 percent of the radiation leaked at Chernobyl, but the plant is still leaking, and officials said the damage from meltdowns at three different reactors is more extensive than they had previously reported.

In a 750-page report to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Japanese officials acknowledged that they were "unprepared" to deal with a disaster of this magnitude. The report also includes a number of notable admissions. From the BBC:

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano says more evacuations are being considered. Monitoring shows the lie of the land and wind patterns may be causing a build-up of radiation in other areas.

And from Bloomberg:

Many workers at Japan's crippled Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant were without personal dosimeters to measure radiation exposure for weeks after the March 11 earthquake because the tsunami soaked their devices in seawater, making them unusable.

So while the nuclear crisis may have faded from headlines in the US, the latest news is a reminder that residents and officials in the country will be dealing with this for some time. The disaster has also caused political stirrings in the country. Last week, after an unsuccessful "no confidence" vote in the lower house of the parliament, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said he may resign over the Fukushima situation once they reach "a certain stage in tackling the disaster and I've fulfilled my role."

Does Barbie Hate Orangutans?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 1:35 PM EDT
Greenpeace says Ken doesn't date girls who live in packaging from the rainforest.

A few weeks ago, Mattel announced that Barbie wants a green dream house. Perhaps it's because she's spent so much time in environmentally deplorable digs.

According to a Greenpeace investigation, Barbie dolls are among the many toys on the market whose packaging contains fibers that originated in the ecologically fragile (and mightily abused) Indonesian rainforest, which is home to a vast array of creatures including tigers, rhinos, and orangutans. Greenpeace sent samples of Barbie packaging to IPS Testing, a paper analysis lab, which confirmed that the sample contained fibers of mixed tropical hardwood. According to Greenpeace, this particular wood blend is a telltale sign that the paper originated in Indonesia, since that's the only place that produces it in large volumes. Greenpeace also dug up several certificates (PDF) that show that Mattel has purchased paper from a middleman for Asia Pulp & Paper, a gargantuan paper supply company whose many misdeeds in Indonesia have prompted American retail chains (including Staples, Office Depot, and Target) to quit buying from APP for good. I wrote about APP's weird ties with the tea party here.

Although Mattel hasn't yet responded to Greenpeace's accusations, there's been some back and forth between the two groups. In March, Greenpeace wrote to Mattel, asking the company about its paper sourcing policies. Two months later, Mattel responded:

We specify that our catalogs are printed on paper containing at least 10 percent post‐consumer waste, and we encourage consumers to share and recycle them. For other printed materials, we generally work with paper suppliers and the printers that can make recommendations on latest FSC‐approved paper stocks that meet the needs of our specific project. In addition, we have reduced our use of paper through socializing conservation measures with our employees and reducing the size and number of corporate reports we print by moving to digital solutions.

So yeah, the elephant in the living room is, uh, the packaging.

More bad news: Even if you've banished Barbie from your house, it's likely at least a few of your toys are made by companies on Greenpeace's list of rainforest-unfriendly manufacturers: Some Disney, Hasbro, and LEGO packages were all found to contain Indonesian fibers. LEGOs! And here I thought they could do no wrong!

 

Still Wondering Why the Public is Ill-Informed on Climate?

| Tue Jun. 7, 2011 11:59 AM EDT

Foes of the Environmental Protection Agency's greenhouse gas regulations have dominated the TV news circuit in the past year and a half, according to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters. The group's survey of news shows found that 76 percent of the guests appearing on television news—or 152 out of 199—were opposed to the regulations and only 18 percent spoke in favor of them.

The group notes that three channels—Fox News, Fox Business, and CNBC—were largely responsible for the skewed representation. The other major news shows barely talked about the subject, which raises its own set of concerns.

The split was also along partisan lines—of the 35 lawmakers who appeared on cable shows to discuss the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gases, 30 were Republicans. The only cable network bucking that trend was, not surprisingly, MSNBC.

This is perhaps the most disturbing statistic to me, though: only one guest in the 17 months of programmging that Media Matters studied was a certified climate scientist. That was Patrick Michaels, a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute who does in fact hold a Ph.D. in ecological climatology. But his funding from the fossil fuels industry has made him a less-than-reliable source on the subject—funding that he's sought to hide or dismiss as "irrelevant" over the years. Still, he was the only climate scientist featured in more than a year and a half across nine news outlets. Pitiful.

DOT Shuts Down Tar Sands Pipeline

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 5:51 PM EDT

TransCanada has grand dreams of building a gigantic pipeline that would traverse the United States and ship oil from Canada's tar sands to Texas refineries. But the branch of the Keystone pipeline that the company is already operating in the US has created a considerable problem—causing a dozen spills in just its first year of operation.

The pipeline has been shut down since it sprung yet another leak on May 29. On Friday, the federal agency that oversees pipelines ordered the company to keep the pipeline, which runs from North Dakota to Illinois and then on to Oklahoma, shut down until they prove that the problems are fixed.

In an order issued to the company on Friday, associate administrator for pipeline safety at the Department of Transportation Jeffrey Wiese wrote:

… I find that the continued operation of the pipeline without corrective measures would be hazardous to life, property and the environment. Additionally, after considering the circumstances surrounding the May 7 and May 29, 2011 failures, the proximity of the pipeline to populated areas, water bodies, public roadways and high consequence areas, the hazardous nature of the product the pipeline transports, the ongoing investigation to determine the cause of the failures, and the potential for the conditions causing the failures to be present elsewhere on the pipeline, I find that a failure to issue this Order expeditiously to require immediate corrective action would result in likely serious harm to life, property, and the environment.

The entire situation does not bode particularly well for the proposed Keystone XL extension, which the State Department is expected to make a decision on very soon. Earlier this week, a group of 34 Democratic lawmakers wrote to the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency expressing concerns about the proposed line. The latest news isn't exactly encouraging.

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How Bad Is Climate Change for Your Lungs?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 5:16 PM EDT

A new study puts a hefty price tag on climate change by linking it to the air you breathe. The report, published yesterday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, concludes that CO2-induced temperature increases will worsen ground-level ozone concentrations (the kind coming from power plants and exhaust pipes, not the kind that shields the Earth from UV rays). Higher concentrations of ground-level ozone threaten the health of millions of Americans, an impact that could cost the US $5.4 billion in 2020. If that's not compelling enough, here's what the study's findings mean for you:  

  • If you live in the following states: California, Texas, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Virginia topped the list of most vulnerable populations under the projected ozone concentration increase of 2 parts per billion per 1 degree of temperature increase.
  • If you have asthma: Higher ground-level ozone concentrations could lead to 2.8 million additional occurrences of asthma attacks, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pains in 2020 compared to today.
  • If you go to school: Many schools already prevent students from going outside and cancel sports games due to poor air quality. UCS projects that in 2020 higher ozone concentrations could lead to 944,000 more school absences than today.
  • If you're older than 65 or younger than 1: In 2050, an average of 24,000 more seniors and 5,700 more infants than today could be hospitalized for respiratory problems linked to air quality.

If you're an athlete, work outdoors, or live in a low-income community or in any of the 322 counties that do not meet the current national ozone standard, then you're also at high risk. And if you're a farmer, ozone pollution in rural areas may also lower your crop yields.

So what to do? There's the obvious, like riding a bike or taking mass transit instead of driving. Also, you could avoid mowing your lawn on bad ozone days. In late July, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to announce a stronger ozone standard as well as new proposed rules to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. But the EPA has already delayed tightening its ozone standards three times, and now the coal power plant industry and related labor unions are lobbying Congress to delay the air pollution rules. Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Kent.), and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who have previously tried to reverse the EPA's ability to regulate air pollution under the Clean Air Act, have asked the EPA to delay or abandon the rules.

In any case, it might all be too little, too late. The majority of states in the US consistently violate the EPA's existing limit on ozone concentration. And there is virtually no entity that sets standards these issues at the county and state levels, report co-author Jerome Paulson said in a press conference call. He adds that "there are essentially no national level recommendations," either, because none of the federal agencies have the authority to legally mandate them.

This summer, says UCS public health expert Liz Perera, nearly 50 percent of Americans will breathe air with unsafe ozone levels. The figure will probably increase with time, since hotter temperatures could easily mean higher demand for air conditioners and more demand for electricity during summer months, thus resulting in more emissions from fossil-fueled power plants. 

Dealing With the 10 Scariest Things You Can't Avoid

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 1:15 PM EDT

Yesterday, I filtered through a deluge of articles about the evils of everyday life—according to some recent media, commuting, sitting at a desk, and even pickles, can damage your health. As promised, I talked to a pro about how we process this kind of information. Social psychologist Kevin Binning, who studies human response as a post-doc at UC-Santa Barbara, thinks that this cautionary info won't resonate with people…unless the subject at hand never really mattered to them in the first place.

Mother Jones: Are we receptive to messages about potential danger in daily life? If so, do they change our behavior?

Kevin Binning: Say I'm an avid pickle fan, and I eat them all the time. I'm not going to be swayed by the information that they could be bad for me at all. I'm not in a mental place where I’m going to be receptive. But, if I'm in a place where pickles aren't central to my identity, then next time I see a pickle I'll think, "Hm, should I be eating that?" The people who these articles are targeting are the ones who aren’t going to listen.

MJ: What if it's something we don’t have a choice about, like commuting?

KB: You'll normally say, "This is just another in a long line of things that are bad to me," and then you kind of go about your daily life. It's just another thing to add onto the pressure that we face every day. We can't possibly cope with all these threats all the time; there's no way. We will probably selectively respond to the ones that we can do something about.

Gem of the Week: Overhauling the Medicare Payment Model

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 7:01 AM EDT

In this blog post I highlight an illuminating or groundbreaking news article or report on the environment or health from the past 5 days. This week's gem goes to... the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine for revealing deep weaknesses in the way Medicare determines how much to pay doctors and hospitals for covered expenses. The report also outlined ways to fix these weaknesses.

For example, as found in the NAS report, Medicare uses geographical market areas to help determine how much a kidney transplant will cost a hospital to perform. However, Medicare divides the US into only 89 geographic markets, and some of those markets are an entire state or a large city. So even though an independent hospital in rural Nebraska incurs more costs to provide an organ transplant, it would be reimbursed the same as a better-funded, corporate-owned hospital in downtown Omaha. The authors recommend revising how these geographical areas are determined, and integrating them other parts of the Medicare payment model.

Another large flaw the report found was the wage index Medicare uses to help determine how much it should pay doctors and staff for procedures. Instead of using survey data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the report's authors recommend using the Bureau of Labor Statistics's data because it's independent and more accurate.

The report is just phase I in a two-part investigation: the final report will be released in 2012. Amid discussions of cutting Medicare entitlements and aging Baby Boomers, the report's recommendations are vital information. Currently Medicare covers 47 million seniors and 8 million people with permanent disabilities. With so many subscribers, making payments more accurate could go a long way toward cutting waste (where it occurs), and making sure all hospitals and staff are fairly compensated Medicare services.

Is the FCC Downplaying Potential Risks from Cell Phone Radiation?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

There's been much to-do this week over the announcement from the World Health Organization that the group now believes radiation from cell phone is a possible carcinogen. As my colleague Kiera Butler pointed out, there's not really much news there; we're basically at the same point we've been for a while now—although a few studies have suggested a connection between cell phones and brain tumors, there's not enough proof to firm up a direct link. But have federal regulators been complicit in downplaying the reasons we might want to be concerned?

The consumer watchdogs at Environmental Working Group believe that the Federal Communications Commission, the agency charged with regulating cell phones, may be deliberately shielding information from the public about possible concerns related to cell phone radiation in response to pressure from the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association (CTIA), the industry group representing wireless telecom companies. On its website, the FCC says that there is "no scientific evidence that proves that wireless phone usage can lead to cancer." That's true, but the FCC site also does not include much in the way of references to the studies that do suggest there may be some reasons for concern. And, as EWG has documented, the FCC last year deleted information from its website that advised consumers on how to avoid exposure to radiation.

The public battle heated up last June, when the city of San Francisco passed a "Cell Phone Right to Know" ordinance requiring cell phone retailers to prominently display information about the amount of electromagnetic radiation—also known as the "specific absorption rate" or SAR—that each phone releases. (The FCC has a database on its website that lists the amount of radiation emitted from each type of cell phone, but it's nearly impossible to navigate.) The CTIA retaliated, first barring San Francisco from hosting future trade shows and then suing the city, claiming that the ordinance oversteps FCC's regulatory oversight on the issue. Earlier this month, San Francisco backed off the new law in response to the suit.

In the heat of the debate over SF's ordinance, the FCC held several meetings with the CTIA and individual telecom companies. Not long after, the FCC removed information from its website that noted that some parties have suggested buying phones with lower emission levels or taking precautions to limit exposure. EWG submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the FCC seeking details about those meetings and all contact between the FCC and CTIA regarding the San Francisco ordinance.

The documents released in response to the FOIA request last September revealed that changing the website was one of the requests that the industry group had made of the agency in one of those meetings—though the FCC maintains that they made the change of their own volition to minimize "public confusion" on the issue and because the agency doesn't think that the SAR level is a particularly useful way of measuring radiation exposure. Among the lines removed from the FCC website was one suggesting that consumers should "Buy a wireless device with lower SAR." The FCC also added a line noting that the agency "does not endorse the need" to reduce exposure to these emissions.

While EWG can't say decisively that it was the industry pressure that led the FCC to adjust the website, "the change that took place was very favorable for the industry," says EWG senior scientist Olga Naidenko.

Naidenko says she hopes that the latest news on cell phones from the WHO this week will galvanize new concern about what we do and don't know about the potential problems related to radiation exposure from cell phones. She also pointed to the fact that neither the FCC nor the Food and Drug Administration, which is also charged with oversight on this issue, has conducted their own studies to determine whether and how much we should be concerned about exposure. The FCC's FAQ site notes, in response to the question "Is there any evidence that cell phones cause cancer?" that the agency is keeping an eye on research on the subject. It also says that the FDA is "participating in an industry-funded research project to further investigate possible biological effects"—which doesn't necessarily make one feel all that much safer.

In the meantime, EWG has published its own rankings of how much radiation specific cell phone models emit and other advice for reducing exposure. And while the latest WHO news does not bring us any closer to knowing whether our cell phones cause cancer, I'm sure I'm not alone in preferring to limit exposure where possible.

Hat tip: SEJ Watchdog.