Blue Marble - June 2011

Are Chemical Companies Hiding Toxic Evidence?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 4:23 PM EDT

Ever wonder what kinds of chemicals make their way into your bloodstream? Good luck finding out. According to a new investigation by the Environmental Working Group, US chemical companies aren't reporting studies on levels of toxic pollutants in people's bodies—and the EPA is letting them get away with it.

Under the federal Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can make companies submit health and safetly reports and notify the government if they come across evidence that chemicals could be putting people at risk. But the EWG suspects that the agency hasn't been exercising this power: When researchers searched public EPA databases containing more than 50,000 industry-sponsored health studies, they found only "a scant number" about chemical exposures, and even fewer on kids' exposures.

In a press release, the EWG offered a blueprint for future action by acknowledging one instance in which the EPA did crack down on a chemical company. In 2004, it fined DuPont $16.5 million after the company hid evidence that workers at a West Virginia plant had been exposed to perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical that has been linked to birth defects.

Academics and government scientists routinely conduct various biomonitoring tests because of these sorts of risks. That prompted EWG president Ken Cook, in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson (PDF), to ask: "Logically, the chemical industry should be conducting the same basic studies to understand the safety of its chemicals for the public. And if not, why not?"

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The Military's Sweet, Flawed Tobacco Deal

| Thu Jun. 2, 2011 1:18 PM EDT

US troops have long been able to purchase products at a discount. But what happens when those discounts are even deeper than the Defense Department allows? And they're for harmful products? Tobacco is a case in point. A new Public Radio investigation finds that soldiers on some bases can buy cigarettes and chewing tobacco for up to 30% less than they'd pay in local stores: that's far more than the 5% price-drop allowed by the Department of Defense (DoD).

The reason for the disparity in prices is often faulty research. Sometimes the DoD representative who's comparing on-base and off-base prices will reference a store at a Reservation or at a Coast Guard base where tobacco products are already discounted. So in effect, the military is giving a discount on top of a discount.

Not that soldiers are complaining. Military personnel are much more likely to use tobacco products than non-military: 32% of active-duty personnel uses tobacco, versus about 20% of the general population. Many troops only started using tobacco when they enlisted, and say smoking and chewing helps alleviate the stress (and boredom) that come with the job.

But the American Lung Association finds that soldiers who smoke are less fit, more likely to sustain injuries, and more likely to be stressed out than their non-smoking counterparts. Even the Defense Department is wising up to the costs of tobacco products: it spends around $1.6 billion a year on related health costs and the Veteran's Administration spends much more battling long-term effects. The Defense Department gave a plea last year for their "active duty and retired servicemembers and their families to make a resolution to quit tobacco" and pointed interested parties to the DoD's Train2Quit tobacco cessation program, www.ucanquit2.org. If the DoD is really serious about reducing tobacco use, they might want to consider doing what civilians have already done: make tobacco more expensive. Or at the very least, reduce the discount.

The 10 Scariest Things You Can't Avoid

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 6:52 PM EDT

Today's world is a scary place, as any quick perusal of the interwebs will tell you. We're dealing with threats of death by obesity. Climate change. Nuclear war. Pickles. Wait, whutnow? Trust me, I know— that's what I said yesterday, when in my reading through articles about cell-phone-cancer-doom I came across this nifty little article about death by pickled stuff. Why would the universe want to deprive me, Snooki, and so many others of our favorite sandwich accompaniment?

But I suppose, in reality, I can avoid pickles if it's a matter of life or death. Still, I'm troubled by a slew of other articles that point to things that are so ingrained in our day-to-day existence that they would be extremely difficult—in some cases impossible—to dodge. How do we live with ourselves, knowing our every move is damaging our health? That the very way modern society dictates we exist is a carcinogenic, life-sucking slog to the grave, and that we're also indirectly killing our planet in the process? I plan to address that in an article to come, but in the meantime, here are ten everyday hazards with no easy fix:

The Illustrated 2011 Hurricane Forecast

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 4:32 PM EDT

Credit: NOAA.

 

 It's here. The start of the 2011 hurricane season. And so is the seasonal hurricane forecast of Phil Klotzbach and Bill Gray at Colorado State University. Their summary:

 

We continue to foresee well above-average activity for the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. We are predicting the same levels of activity that were forecast in early April due to the combination of expected neutral ENSO conditions and very favorable atmospheric and oceanic conditions in the tropical Atlantic. We continue to anticipate an above-average probability of United States and Caribbean major hurricane landfall.  

 

Specifically, for 2011, they're forecasting the likelihood of:
 
  • 16 named storms

  • 9 hurricanes

  • 5 intense hurricanes

 

Compare that to the average during the 50 years between 1950 and 2000:

  • 10 named storms

  • 6 hurricanes

  • 2 intense hurricanes

 

Sea surface heights captured by the OSTM/Jason-2 satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL.

 

The four reasons for Klotzbach's and Gray's above-average forecast:

1. The likelihood of neutral to weak La Niña conditions between August and October, the most active portion of the hurricane season.

One way we track La Niña's characteristic water temperatures is by tracking sea surface heights, which are used to calculate how much heat is stored in the ocean below.

A weak or neutral La Niña generally results in average to below average levels of vertical wind shear. Weaker winds allow hurricanes to grow.

Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential on 31 May 2011. Credit: NOAA.

 

2. Above average May sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic.

As you can see in the image above, sea surface temperatures are already at or above the tropical storm threshold of about 26 degrees Centigrade. As of 31 May, they were about 0.5 above normal in the Atlantic and 0.5 to 1.0 C above normal in the Gulf of Mexico. 

That's kindling to a hurricane's fire.

 

Atmospheric pressures at sea level. Anomalies recorded across the Atlantic in May 2011. Credit: NOAA.

 

3. Below average atmospheric sea level pressures during May in the tropical Atlantic.

You can see the extent of anomalously low sea level pressures throughout most of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic in the image above.

Lower pressures are gas to a hurricane's fire.

 
 

Simplified view of the oceanic thermohaline circulation, also known as the ocean conveyor belt. Credit: NOAA.

 

4. The current phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, which began in 1995, is conducive to bigger and more frequent hurricanes. The forecasters explain it thus:  

Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO)—A mode of natural variability that occurs in the North Atlantic Ocean and evidencing itself in fluctuations in both sea surface temperature and sea level pressure fields. The AMO is likely related to fluctuations in the strength of the oceanic thermohaline circulation. Although several definitions of the AMO are currently used in the literature, we define the AMO based on North Atlantic sea surface temperatures from 50-60°N, 10-50°W.  

 
 

Hurricane Alley. Image courtesy NASA GSFC.

 

It mostly all starts in Hurricane Alley (above), when storms fueled by hot air over the Sahara Desert meet cooler air over the Gulf of Guinea and roll off Africa into the Atlantic. 

 

Some of these waves, which begin with a simple thunderstorm—not that a thunderstorm is ever simple—will provide the sparks of energy and spin needed to grow a hurricane a few miles down the line in the waters of the Atlantic or the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.

 
 

Credit: NOAA.

 

Here are the known travel paths of all 1,325 tropical cyclones born between 1851 and 2004.

 

The Klotzbach and Gray forecast calls for a much-higher-than-average chance of a major hurricane hitting the US this year:

 
  • A 48-percent chance along the East Coast, when 31 percent is average

  • A 47 percent chance along the Gulf Coast, when 30 percent is average

  • A 61 percent chance in the Caribbean, when 42 percent is average

 

 

 The video shows 2010's only June hurricane, Alex, and its two-week long birth and death, as it fought its way across the Atlantic, getting torn apart and rebuilding, finally forming as a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

The cyclic passing of gauzy white layers across the screen from right to left marks the transition from day to night, as the data from the visible spectrum of the daytime passes to the data from the infrared at night.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Louisiana Advances Bill Banning Dispersants

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 4:29 PM EDT

A committee in the Louisiana State Senate approved a ban on dispersants in the state's waters on Tuesday as new evidence came to light indicating that the record volume of chemicals used last year in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill may have done more harm than good.

The new law, proposed by Republican state Senator A.G. Crowe, bars the use of dispersants within 3 miles of the coast unless they are classified as "practically non-toxic." The chemicals, which are used to break down oil into smaller clumps and cause it to sink below the surface, became highly controversial last year when more than 1.8 million gallons were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill. Louisiana has now become the first state to take up a bill banning use of these dispersants, in response to concerns about the potential environmental and human health impacts that the chemicals may have. The bill will now go to the full Senate for debate.

We've written quite a bit about the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants in the Gulf, and the limited government oversight that created a situation in which BP was allowed to dump toxic substances into the water on top of the millions of barrels of oil it had spilled. The EPA maintains that using the dispersants was, overall, a preferable alternative to letting all the oil wash ashore. But the National Oil Spill Commission has said that a lack of planning for their use handicapped the government's spill response.

Now, more than a year after that spill began, scientists are finding evidence that the chemicals are lingering in the Gulf. The latest science on the spill, from researchers at the University of West Florida, finds that the dispersants not only failed to speed up the breakdown of hydrocarbons, but also actually increased the amount of oil that dissolved into the water, as the Pensacola News Journal reports. This may have an impact on phytoplankton and bacteria at the base of the Gulf food chain, according to Wade Jeffrey of UWF, and "may cascade itself up through other larger organisms."

A separate team of researchers from the University of South Florida said last week that they have found large amounts of dispersed oil are still lingering in the deep sea and potentially threaten the base of the food chain. They cited a "dirty blizzard" of dispersed oil and decaying plant and animal matter thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf.