Blue Marble - November 2011

EPA Could Save 35,700 Lives by Limiting Soot, but Won't

| Thu Nov. 17, 2011 8:15 AM EST

Stronger national standards on fine particulate matter could prevent 35,700 premature deaths and save Americans $281 billion per year, according to a new report. Earth Justice, the American Lung Association, and Clean Air Task Force published the report in conjunction with a petition they filed yesterday (PDF) against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to meet its deadline to revisit the standard.

Fine particulate matter (otherwise known as PM 2.5 or more commonly as soot) is a mixture of solid and liquid particles that derives largely from diesel vehicles and equipent as well as coal-fired power plants. Soot is formed when tailpipe and smokestack emissions—including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides (both of which are classified as hazardous under the Clean Air Act)—mix with other chemicals in the atmosphere.

While not considered a hazardous pollutant by EPA standards, there's been a growing amount of scientific evidence supporting PM 2.5's health risks, including respiratory and heart diseases, aggravation of asthma, and diabetes. PM 2.5 is so fine (about 1/30 the width of a human hair) that it bypasses our usual mechanisms to dispel irritating air particles, like coughing and sneezing. Even just a few hours of exposure can aggravate lung disease, asthma attacks, or acute bronchitis, the report's authors say. Exposure has led to incidents of missing school and work, and even emergency visits to the hospital.

The report, citing previous studies, says that children are highly vulnerable to getting sick from PM 2.5 because much of their respiratory systems are still developing, and because they spend more time outdoors than do adults. The report also points out that elders and diabetics—who are more prone to heart or lung disease—are at risk, as are low-income groups, which "often live closer to the sources of soot pollution and have less access to medical care."

Given these findings over recent years, the report's authors argue that the EPA should save lives and money by strengthening its standard without further delay. The EPA, which is mandated under the Clean Air Act to revise pollutant standards every five years, last set its standard for PM 2.5 in October 2006—and is now a month overdue for revision. The environmental groups behind the report and the petition are now asking the courts to impose a September 2012 deadline for the EPA to come up with the new standard.

The general onslaught of recent Congressional action to undercut the EPA's authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act might help to explain the agency's delays in standard setting. According to an August 2011 Congressional Research Service report (PDF), there are at least six EPA regulations currently under consideration that would impose tougher air pollution standards on coal-fired power plants. The proposed regulations are being met with strong resistance from electric utility groups, Edison Electric Institute (EEI) chief among them, which calls the EPA's proposals a "regulatory train wreck." The National Mining Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential lobbying group, have similarly criticized the EPA proposals.

The primary anti-EPA regulation argument touted by industry, of course, is related to cost. One of the proposals under consideration, the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology, would require power plants to install better scrubbing and filtering equipment. Industry groups like EEI have argued that such a regulation could impede electric generating capacity and system reliability. According to the CRS analysis, however, many of the industry impact assessments grossly inflate the EPA's own estimated costs of compliance. For example, the EPA projects that complying with the Utility MACT proposal would cost the industry about $10.9 billion annually, while the average consumer would see bills go up by about $3 to $4 per month.

This cost to industry might be sizeable. But compare that with the estimated $218 billion Americans could save in health costs just with a stronger standard on soot? You do the math.

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Birth Control: Not Just About Sex

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 5:51 PM EST

The Guttmacher Institute has a new study out this week looking at why women in the US use birth control. Turns out, less than half of them are using hormonal contraceptives exclusively to prevent pregnancy. A full 58 percent said that they were using "The Pill" for a variety of other medical reasons.

Based on data from the federal government's National Survey of Family Growth, Guttmacher found that only 42 percent of women who use the pill said they were doing so just to prevent pregnancy. The majority listed other reasons: reducing cramps, regulating their cycle, preventing migraines, and treating endometriosis. The survey found that there are approximately 762,000 women in the US who use the pill but have never had sex.

All of this runs contrary to the idea that women only use the pill because they're big ol' sluts who want to sleep around indiscriminately. And it also lends support to the Obama administration's requirement that health insurers cover birth control as part of preventative health care. That move has provoked outrage among anti-abortion groups that don't like birth control and that have tried to pass draconian "personhood" laws that could make hormonal birth control illegal. Abortion foes' objections range from (mistaken) beliefs about what the pill actually does, to medically inaccurate beliefs about when pregnancies begin, to general dislike of sex outside of marriage.

EU Bans Airport X-Ray Scanners Over Health Concerns

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 2:07 PM EST
Airport X-ray scanner image.

Citing health concerns, the European Union banned from European airports this week the same kind of X-ray scanners used by TSA in airports across the US. Here's the EU's wording:

In order not to risk jeopardising citizens' health and safety, only security scanners which do not use X-ray technology are added to the list of authorised methods for passenger screening at EU airports.

In How Safe Are TSA's Porno Scanners? I wrote about the risks of using ionizing radiation in routine airport screenings. Concerned scientists have noted the health risks of X-ray scanners, where even low levels of radiation increase cancer risks. They also note that TSA's safety testing is flawed, since:

  1. testing is not done on the skin, which receives most backscatter X-rays
  2. the devices used for testing airport scanners are not designed for testing airport scanners

Worse, as Pro Publica points out, TSA's safety tests are strangely obtuse:

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."

European airports can still use alternative body scanners, including millimeter-wave scanners that use radio frequency waves not linked to cancer.

Some 500 body scanners are in use in the US, reports Pro Publica. About half are backscatter X-ray scanners, which look like a pair of large blue boxes. The other half are millimeter-wave scanners, which look like a round glass booth. The X-ray scanners are in use at major airports including Los Angeles International, New York's JFK, and Chicago's O'Hare. Millimeter-wave scanners are in use at San Francisco, Atlanta, and Dallas.

State Department: Any Nebraska-TransCanada Deal Still Requires Our Approval

| Wed Nov. 16, 2011 11:15 AM EST

There was some confusion on Tuesday after news from Nebraska indicated that the state and TransCanada had come to an agreement on rerouting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline around the environmentally sensitive sand hills region.

Some of the initial reporting made it sound like this meant that the pipeline was now a done deal; after some delay, it would probably go forward. This would have been a bit of a let down for enviros who were celebrating last week after the Obama administration announced that it would delay a final decision on the pipeline for further evaluation. But even if Nebraska and TransCanada agree on a new route, it still has to go through the State Department. A spokesperson writes via email:

Nothing has changed with regard to presidential permit process on the way forward on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline project. Everything the Department said Thursday with regard to process and timing holds true.

This process requires a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for the new proposed routes and given the process, we cannot provide a specific end-date, other than to say, as we did last Thursday, that based on previous assessments of similar distance, we anticipate the evaluation could conclude as early as first quarter of 2013.

A delay until 2013 doesn't mean Keystone XL will never be completed. It could just mean that a second-term Obama administration, or a first-term Romney-Perry or Hermanewt Caingrich administration, approves it. Nor does a reroute solve all of the environmental problems with the project. It might mean the sand hills are protected, but there is a long list of other reasons enviros don't like the 1,661-mile proposed pipeline. And even the Keystone XL does get the axe entirely, Canadian oil companies are already looking for other means of exporting that oil.

Toxic Russian Satellite in Decaying Orbit

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 5:56 PM EST
Martian moon Phobos.

Russia's Phobos-Grunt space probe has been stalled in low orbit since its 8 November launch and is now in danger of falling back to Earth, possibly by January. The spacecraft is supposed to travel to Mars' moon Phobos to collect soil and return home. But Phobos-Grunt never fired its engines from orbit. And it hasn't answered calls from ground controllers.

This is not a good thing in light of Phobos-Grunt's hydrazine rocket fuel—a highly toxic and unstable inorganic compound dangerous to life in even short or small exposures. Phobos means "fear" in Greek. According to the EPA:

Symptoms of acute (short-term) exposure to high levels of hydrazine may include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, dizziness, headache, nausea, pulmonary edema, seizures, and coma in humans. Acute exposure can also damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system in humans. The liquid is corrosive and may produce dermatitis from skin contact in humans and animals. Effects to the lungs, liver, spleen, and thyroid have been reported in animals chronically (long-term) exposed to hydrazine via inhalation. Increased incidences of lung, nasal cavity, and liver tumors have been observed in rodents exposed to hydrazine. EPA has classified hydrazine as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen.

New Scientist reports that NASA destroyed one of its own falling satellites in 2008 to minimize the possibility of hydrazine contamination on Earth—though the fact that it was also a spy satellite might have had something to do with it. Plus it offered the opportunity to fire an SM-3 ballistic missile from ship to orbit in genuine Star Wars style. From New Scientist:

Under international law, Russia would be liable for any damage caused by hydrazine from Phobos-Grunt reaching the ground, says Michael Listner, an attorney and space policy analyst based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. "Let's hope this thing falls in the ocean or an unpopulated area," he says.

Like there's nothing in the ocean that matters. I wrote earlier in the Radioactive Ocean about all the nuclear junk relegated to the bottom of the sea—forgotten but not gone. Let's hope Phobos-Grunt starts talking.

Climate Change Spy vs. Spy?

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 7:00 AM EST

The CIA has a special climate change task force, but as we've reported here, they don't want anyone to know about it. Now the science advisory board to the Department of Defense is recommending that the government create yet another new intelligence group dedicated to climate change.

A new report from the Defense Science Board, a committee set up to advise to the Secretary of Defense, calls for the creation of a unit within the DOD that would "concentrate on the effects of climate change on political and economic developments and their implications for U.S. national security." This new intelligence program would commission the existing CIA task force on climate to "produce an assessment of regional climate change hot spots." But unlike the CIA, this unit would rely on open sources of information, cooperation with other intelligence agencies in the US and abroad, and sharing of intelligence. This is pretty much the opposite of how the CIA's center seems to be approaching the subject. As Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists Project on Government Secrecy writes, their secrecy has undermined their ability to operate effectively on climate:

The CIA's unyielding approach to classification effectively negates the ability of its Center on Climate Change to interact with non-governmental organizations and researchers on an unclassified basis. Since, as the DSB noted, much of the relevant expertise on climate change lies "outside the government [in] universities, the private sector, and NGOs," the CIA's blanket secrecy policy is a potentially disabling condition.

But then again, in the current political climate, agencies that did try to make a open, transparent effort on climate change have had their budget axed. So maybe that's why the work has stayed underground so far.

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Keystone XL Is Delayed—So Where's the Oil Going Now?

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 4:57 PM EST

Enviros were, understandably, quite pleased by last week's announcement that they Keystone XL pipeline has been indefinitely delayed. The Obama administration hasn't outright rejected it, but it is punting the decision to at least the end of 2012, pending further assessment of its environmental impact. But many see this as a significant victory for US environmentalists.

The likely demise of the Keystone XL doesn't necessarily mean that the oil from the tar sands stays in the ground. It probably just means it won't come into the United States. Instead, it's likely that more oil will be shipped to Canada's west coast, via other proposed pipelines. Speaking at the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu over the weekend, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that the country will instead increase its focus on exports to Asia. From the Wall Street Journal:

"This does underscore the necessity of Canada making sure that we are able to access Asia markets for our energy products," Mr. Harper told reporters in Honolulu, according to a transcript provided by his office. "And that will be an important priority of our government going forward." Mr. Harper said he made that point in a meeting the day before with Chinese president Hu Jintao.

Probably the biggest reason TransCanada wanted to build the Keystone XL line across the United States is all the refining infrastructure we have in Texas already. There isn't nearly as much built up on Canada's western coast. But shipping through the West would provide handy access to the growing Asian market, and there are already companies lined up to do just that.

Kinder Morgan Canada is working on an expansion of its Trans Mountain pipeline, from Edmonton to Burnaby. The company plans to build a second pipeline beside the existing one, which would increase its capacity to 700,000 barrels per day. The company plans to ship to Asia through the existing Westridge Marine Terminal. From the promotional materials on the pipeline:

Enbridge has also proposed the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would run two pipelines between Alberta and a new terminal to be built in Kitimat, British Columbia. That project, which is currently under review, would carry 525,000 barrels of oil to the port every day. Here's the map of that proposed project:

Your Prius' Deepest, Darkest Secret

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 6:30 AM EST

So you're considering buying a hybrid car. Or maybe you already have. Good for you! You're saving a bundle on gas and reducing your environmental footprint at the same time. But fuel isn't the only natural resource that your car requires. Its motor also contains a small amount of neodymium, one of 17 elements listed at the very bottom of the periodic table. Known as the rare earths, these minerals are key to all kinds of green technology: Neodymium magnets turn wind turbines. Cerium helps reduce tailpipe emissions. Yttrium can form phosphors that make light in LED displays and compact fluorescent lightbulbs. Hybrid and electric cars often contain as many as eight different rare earths.

This hockey-puck-sized hunk of the rare earth neodymium is currently worth about $350This hockey-puck-size hunk of the rare earth neodymium is currently worth about $350.And the stuff is good for more than just renewable energy technology. Walk down the aisles of your local Best Buy and you'll be hard-pressed to find something that doesn't contain at least one of the rare earths, from smartphones to laptop batteries to flat-screen TVs. They're also crucial for defense technology—radar and sonar systems, tank engines, and the navigation systems in smart bombs.

Given all this, it's not surprising that the rare-earths industry is booming. Demand for the elements has skyrocketed in the past few years, and a recent report predicted it to grow by 50 percent by 2017.

For the last few decades, China controlled the world's market for rare earths, producing about 97 percent of the global supply. But in late 2010, China cut its exports by 35 percent in order to keep the valuable metals for its own manufacturers. The prices of rare earths rose almost immediately. Fearing a shortage, US legislators sprang into action. This past April, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) introduced a bill that would kick-start a domestic rare-earths renaissance in the United States.

A few rare-earths mines are slated to open in the United States in the next few years, the most hyped of which is a facility called Mountain Pass in California's Mojave Desert. (It's actually been around off and on since the '50s, but a company called Molycorp has given it a major makeover.) When it's running at full capacity, Mountain Pass will be the largest rare-earths mine in the world, producing upwards of 40,000 tons of the stuff every year.

Which means Molycorp will also have to deal with a whole lot of waste.  Rare earths occur naturally with the radioactive elements thorium and uranium, which, if not stored securely, can leach into groundwater or escape into the air as dust. The refining process requires huge amounts of harsh acids, which also have to be disposed of safely. Molycorp claims that its new operations are leak-proof, but the company's ambitious plans have raised a few eyebrows among environmentalists, since the site has a history of spills.

But no matter how quickly new mines open, the United States won't be able to produce enough rare earths on its own—it's thought that North America contains only 15 percent of the world's supply. A recent Congressional Research Service report (PDF) recommended that the US seek reliable sources in other countries.

Survival Against All Odds: Animals of the Arctic

| Sat Nov. 12, 2011 5:55 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth's Race to the South Pole series. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

Adaptation is fundamental for a species to survive, especially in hostile environments like the Arctic. When faced with six months of perpetual darkness where snow and ice lay claim to every inch of the land, which animals are capable of surviving, and how do they do it?

During winter in the Arctic, temperatures can drop to a bone-chilling -50°C (-58°F). Rather than going into hibernation, however, some animals stick out the winter, using their cold-conquering adaptations to survive. One such animal that has done this is the arctic fox, more commonly known as the snow fox.

Across the arctic and alpine tundra, these jackals of the north—so-called because of their propensity to scavenge on polar bears' kills—have a woolly coat with the best insulating properties of any mammal. The fox also has small, heavily furred ears, and a short nose that enable the species to adapt to extreme arctic conditions. Their small surface area make them less prone to heat loss, while increased blood circulation and fur on the soles of their feet prevent their paws from freezing.

Another such master of retaining body heat: the walrus.

Walruses are covered with short, coarse hair that becomes less dense with age. Their skin is folded and wrinkled and can grow up to 4-cm thick, serving as a great insulator. The skin is thickest on the neck and shoulders of adult males, and they serve a defensive purpose—resisting tusk penetration when two bulls spar, for example.

Walruses also have a deposit of fatty tissue up to 15 cm (6 inches) thick—and may make up up to a third of their body mass in winter. The tissue also streamlines the body and is used as an energy reserve.

These outer defenses serve as a pretty strong armor. But even the thickest of a walrus' "winter coat" is not sufficient when diving to depths of over 180 meters (590 feet) for nearly half an hour at a time. When entering the cold arctic water, walruses also have an internal mechanism that restricts blood flow to the skin in order to reduce heat loss, giving them a paler appearance underwater. Conversely, when walruses are warm their skin is flushed with blood and they appear to be very red.

The adaptations that allow animals to live in such a hostile environment are incredible; join us again when we explore adaptations even more extreme—those of the animals who inhabit the Antarctic, the coldest place on earth.

Image-of-the-Week: Island Birth

| Fri Nov. 11, 2011 6:02 PM EST

El Hierro and of El Hierro and plume of volcanic material, 2 Nov 2011.: Credit: NASA image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the EO-1 Team.El Hierro and of El Hierro and plume of volcanic material, 2 Nov 2011. Credit: NASA image by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using ALI data from the EO-1 Team.An underwater volcanic eruption in the Las Calmas ("The Calm") sea off El Hierro in the Canary Islands continues unabated since last month. The volcano is believed to be spewing up to 330 feet (100 meters) below the surface—yet its 2,200°F (1,200°C) cauldron is heating the surface by as much as 18°F (10°C). The plume visible in this satellite image stretches tens of miles from the eruption site and is formed from the blasting and churning of seafloor sediment, volcanic rock, and minerals. The eruption has been accompanied by more than 10,000 earthquakes and tremors—including a 4.6 temblor today. Meanwhile Earthquake Reports writes that Spanish scientists announced an eruption is also possible on Lanzarote Island at the far northeastern end of the Canary Island archipelago, and that "an eruption on the coast itself cannot be excluded." Meanwhile "The Calm" sea is writhing through what may well be the labor pains of a new island.