Blue Marble - March 2012

Enviros Target Lead Bullets, Pro-Gun Crowd Freaks

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 2:40 PM EDT

On Tuesday, 100 environmental groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate lead in bullets and shot, adding fuel to the conspiracy theories of Second-Amendment fans that environmentalists—and the Obama administration—are about to take away their ammo.

The groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, has asked the EPA to ban lead ammunition and require sportsmen to use nontoxic bullets and shot. Hunters leave 3,000 tons of lead bullets in the woods each year, and shooting ranges generate another 80,000 tons of spent ammo, CBD says. As many as 20 million eagles, condors, swans and other birds die each year due to lead poisoning after consuming what's left behind. The groups argue that the EPA should ban lead ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the 1976 law governing what chemicals the EPA is allowed to regulate.

The Fish and Wildlife Service outlawed lead bullets for hunting waterfowl back in 1991, a decision the agency has declared a "remarkable success, preventing the premature deaths of millions of waterfowl." Lead poisoning makes the birds lethargic, weak, emaciated and unable to fly, and damages the birds' gallbladders, livers, kidneys, and spleens. And wildlife biologists for the National Park Service note, "lead poisoning is the biggest threat facing the successful recovery of the California condor," and it is hazardous to other types of birds as well. (NPS also points to studies showing that lead bullets aren't good for people who consume wild game, either.) But most sportsmen still use lead bullets for hunting other birds and mammals.

CBD and other groups filed a similar petition in August 2010, but the EPA declined to weigh in on ammo. The groups then sued to try to get the EPA to regulate lead in bullets, but the lawsuit was dismissed last September. Now they're asking the EPA to reconsider, which I'm sure the Obama administration would love to do in the middle of an election year.

The previous petition sparked one of the many conspiracy theories about the EPA, and the National Rifle Association proceeded to freak out about how the Obama administration was going use this as another "vehicle to implement gun control."

In response to the latest petition, the National Shooting Sports Foundation is asking Congress to pass the Sportsmen’s Heritage Act of 2012, a law that would amend TSCA to state that the ammunition is explicitly excluded from regulation. The group's senior vice president and general counsel, Lawrence G. Keane, put out a heated statement on Tuesday arguing that "hunters and their ammunition have done more for wildlife than the CBD ever will."

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Furtive New York City Frog Finally Found

| Wed Mar. 14, 2012 2:29 PM EDT

New species of leopard frog: Brian Curry, Rutgers UniversityNew unnamed species of leopard frog: Brian Curry, Rutgers University

The Algonquian peoples doubtless knew about this as yet unnamed species of leopard frog living in the heart of New York City. As far back as the late 1800s scientists had speculated about the "odd frogs." But it took the advent of molecular genetics to verify that a species of leopard frog different from kin to the north and south was living in plain sight.

Jeremy Feinberg of Rutgers who made the initial discovery was doing research on the alarming decline of leopard frogs in the wetlands of New York and New Jersey when he noticed Staten Island frogs displaying unusual behaviors and peculiar croaks. Instead of the typical "long snore" or "rapid chuckle," these frogs had short repetitive croaks.

Northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens): Credit: Balcer via Wikimedia Commons.

The new species is not a northern leopard frog (Rana pipiens): Balcer via Wikimedia Commons. 

"When I first heard these frogs calling, it was so different, I knew something was very off," says  Feinberg. "It’s what we call a cryptic species: one species hidden within another because we can't tell them apart by looking.  But thanks to molecular genetics, people are really picking out species more and more that would otherwise be ignored."

The research published by a team from Rutgers, UCLA, UC Davis, and the U of Alabama in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution revealed the "new" species to be neither a northern leopard frog nor a southern leopard frog—nor a hybrid of the two. But a species all its own whose range epicenter was once probably Yankee Stadium, and who now survives on Staten Island and in mainland New York and New Jersey, maybe even as far away as Pennsylvania and Connecticut. From the paper:

While our data support recognition of R. sp. nov. as a novel species, we recommend further study including fine-scaled sampling and ecological, behavioral, call, and morphological analyses before it is formally described. 

Southern leopard frog (Rana sphenocephalus): Coveredinsevindust via Wikimedia Commons.The new species is not a southern leopard frog (Rana sphenocephalus): Coveredinsevindust via Wikimedia Commons.

"It's very surprising for a new species like this to have been unrecognized in this area until now," says Feinberg. "Their naturally limited range coupled with recent unexplained disappearances from places like Long Island underscores the importance of this discovery and the value that conservation efforts might have in the long-term survival of this urban species."

Is Knock-Off Jewelry Bad for You?

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 6:14 PM EDT

It seems that every year or so, there's a news story about lead and other nasty substances found in unexpected places—children's toys, drinking glasses, women's handbags, lipstick. A new report out Tuesday finds lead in cheap jewelry as well—meaning you might want to back off that faux bling.

The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Ecology Center found that 57 percent of the 99 pieces of jewelry it test contained high levels of toxic components like lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and bromine. Twenty-seven percent of pieces contained more than 300 parts per million (ppm) of lead—which far exceeds the 100 ppm limit for children's products the Consumer Product Safety Commission set last year. Forty-seven percent contained detectible levels of the "extremely toxic metal" cadmium, which is also a "probable carcinogen" according to the EPA. Thirteen percent had high levels of arsenic, and 5 percent had high levels of mercury.

The Center noted that some of these chemicals are linked to health risks like birth defects, learning disorders, liver toxicity, and cancer, or can cause allergic reactions. Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, called the findings evidence of a "complete failure of our federal chemical regulatory system." The jewelry they tested came from 14 different stores, including Target, Claire's, Forever 21, Walmart, H&M, and Hot Topic, and included products intended for both children and adults. Most of the jewelry the group tested cost less than $10.

The report even flags products like a blue, heart-shaped pendant necklace made by the Pastel Collection bought at a store called Glitter that says "Lead Free" on the package—yet the tests found high levels of lead in both the pendant and the necklace's clasp.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that current law directs the agency to set federal regulations governing lead in children's jewelry—not for products intended people over the age of 12. Scott Wolfson, director of communications at the CPSC, also noted that as of November 2011, there is a new voluntary industry standard for other chemicals in children's jewelry that CPSC helped create. He said that the CPSC, "has started looking into the products identified" in the report.

Pacific Island Nation Buys New Home

| Tue Mar. 13, 2012 1:44 PM EDT

Kiribati: Credit: jopolopy via Flickr.

Kiribati: Credit: jopolopy via Flickr. 

The Pacific island nation of Kiribati (say: Kirr-y-bus) is comprised of 32 coral atolls and 1 raised coral island spread across 1.3 million square miles (3.5 million square kilometers) of ocean. It bumps up against many parameters of our world: the equator, the International Date Line, and—most important to its 100,000 inhabitants—sea level.

That's because the atolls rise only about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above today's sea level. Not high enough to withstand any of the projected rises—low, medium, or high—this century.

To get a sense of how the projections play out, the Republic of Kiribati has created an interactive Google Earth layer showing which parts of what islands will become uninhabitable under different projections of sea level rise by 2030, 2050, 2070, and 2100. You can access it at the end of the document here.

Now the government of Kiribati intends to purchase 9.6 square miles (25 square kilometers) on the high island of Viti Levu in Fiji, nearly 1,400 miles (2,253 km) southeast of Kiribati, for their people to move to if—when—necessary. Reports New Scientist:

"Relocation is our last resort," [said President Anote Tong last week], adding that effects of climate change are already hindering the nation's economic development.

I first wrote about this problem as it affected Kiribati's neighbors, the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu, in my 2003 MoJo article, All the Disappearing Islands (and more in my book The Fragile Edge). Tuvalu was already experiencing land loss due to rising high tides inundating their water table and sowing their soil with saltwater and threatening to make their islands uninhabitable long before they actually disappear beneath the waves.

Both of these island nations have contributed only a fraction of a percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions now virtually guaranteeing to drown them.

Santorum: My Opponents Believe in the "Pseudo-Religion" of Global Warming

| Mon Mar. 12, 2012 1:58 PM EDT

Rick Santorum has a new column over at Red State, in which he declares that thing that separates him from the rest of the lingering members of the GOP primary field is his strident disbelief in the "pseudo-religion" of global warming. Climate change, he declares, is "the litmus test" of "radical environmentalism" that should be rejected by all true conservatives.

Santorum begins the piece by condemning the Obama administration for enacting polices to address the issue. "We are the collateral damage of the war against global warming," he claims, grouping himself and everyone else with workers in the fossil fuels industry who might lose jobs because of greenhouse gas regulations.

But he saves the brunt of his criticism for rivals Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, accusing them in the headline of the piece of being "blown and tossed by the winds of political correctness" in their previous statements supporting action on climate change. He writes:

Of all the GOP candidates, I am the only one who has not bowed, and will never bow, to this liberal orthodoxy. I did not pander when global warming seemed cool to the press and to Hollywood. We know that climate changes over time, that he earth warms and cools over time. This debate is about whether human activity plays a role, and whether U.S. emissions cuts can have any effect when China and India refuse to go along. The apostles of this pseudo-religion believe that America and its people are the source of the earth's temperature. I do not.

Of course it's nothing new for Rick Santorum to bash climate science. He's called it a "beautifully concocted scheme" and just another way for Democrats to create "a system that forces you to do what they think you should do." But this latest column includes a culture-war flourish on the issue that Santorum has stopped short of offering before.

New Bill Aims to Repeal Louisiana's Anti-Evolution Law

| Sat Mar. 10, 2012 7:01 AM EST

Karen Carter Peterson, a state senator in Louisiana, wants to make sure evolution is taught in science classes. Last week, Peterson introduced a bill that would repeal a four-year-old state law that encourages teachers to critique science such as evolution and global warming. The repeal effort, the second one in the state in the last year, represents the latest in a broader pushback against anti-evolution laws passed since 2008.

Louisiana's Science Education Act, passed in 2008, was the first of its kind to be approved in a state legislature. It claims to promote "critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning." Attempts to pass similar legislation, which are often called "Academic Freedom" bills, have failed in a number of other states including Iowa, Florida, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire. My colleagues James West and Tim McDonnell have reported on parents' and teachers' efforts to push back against climate-change deniers in the classroom in Vermont, Washington, and Connecticut.

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What Your Shampoo Bottle Isn't Telling You

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 6:04 PM EST

I'm not the most discerning shopper when it comes to buying cosmetics or household products. (Why are parabens bad for you, again?) So if I saw the chemical diethanolamine listed on the back of a shampoo bottle, or decamethylcyclopentasiloxane on a surface cleaner, it probably wouldn't stop me from buying it. But chances are I'd never see those those names, anyway.

The main reason for this, a new study in yesterday's Environmental Health Perspectives points out, is that the state of product labeling in the US is pretty poor. How poor? The study's researchers—who analyzed samples from 213 different consumer products ranging from cat litter to shaving cream, sunscreen, dishwater detergent, mascara, and vinegar—detected some 55 toxic chemicals. Many of these, they report, weren't listed on the labels of products tested.

"The study shows that we are exposed to a complex mixture of toxic chemicals simply by going through our normal routines," Andy Igrejas, who heads the group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, said in a press release.

Labels are important, the study's authors write, because they help scientists determine whether (and to what degree) consumer products are responsible for toxic chemicals entering our bodies. We already know about some chemicals detected in the study (which was led by the Silent Spring Institute and partly funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention): Fragrances, BPA, phthalates, among others, are associated with a variety of health risks, most commonly asthma and endocrine disruption.

Improved research, in turn, would help consumers like me a ton. For example: With better labeling and due diligence on my part, I might have known that using a shampoo containing diethanolamine might irritate the nose, throat, and skin. Some animal studies have linked the chemical with increased blood pressure and impaired vision. I might also have known that decamethylcyclopentasiloxane (a.k.a. D5) is a compound widely used in cleaning, personal care, and baby products that's also pretty toxic; studies have shown D5 to be potentially carcinogenic, and can harm the nervous system, fat tissue, liver, and immune system (PDF)—all things that would sway me to opt for a cleaner free of these chemicals.

But the solution isn't just about better labeling, Igrejas says. "We need the federal government to sort through the chemicals on the market and ensure they are restricted where necessary."

Until then, it'll be up to consumers to decide what products are best avoided. As a start, we've already written about what to watch out for in sunscreen and household cleaners, researched the scary world of BPA, and sought the truth behind eco-labels.

LSD Trumps Booze

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 5:35 PM EST

 

The psychedelic effects of LSD beat back the physiological effects of alcoholism, according to a new paper in the  Journal of Psychopharmacology.

The study—a meta-analysis of prior research from the groovy 1960s and 1970s—found that 59 percent of 536 participants in six trials who received LSD reported lower levels of alcohol misuse for the next three to six months, compared to 38 percent who received placebos. One dose did the trick.

This reminds me of other fascinating research from this era that showed LSD removed the fear and dread of death from terminally ill patients.

 fractal glass cycling (essence of Acid) from teamfresh on Vimeo.

I wonder what the effects might be from observing the infinitely deep math porn of a Mandelbrot set. Maybe aided by a little medical-grade weed. Check it out. 

Two Years On, Tar Sands Spill Casts Long Shadow

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A cleanup crew member at the site of the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010.

This week, as Senate Democrats narrowly defeated a renewed—and some say misguided—call to rush construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, residents and officials at the site of the country's largest-ever tar sands oil spill are still reeling nearly two years after the fact. A look at the fallout from that incident in Michigan reveals that a spill of diluted bitumen, the kind from Alberta's tar sands that Keystone would carry, is a far nastier beast than your typical spill of conventional crude. It also shows that cleaning it up can be just as damaging to the environment as the spill itself.

A story this week in the Canadian online magazine The Tyee outlines how, 20 months after a pipe carrying tar sands "dil-bit" burst on the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, residents and local Environmental Protection Agency officials are still struggling to clean up the river. It was the first-ever major spill of this type of heavy oil, and it blindsided EPA cleanup crews: recovering the 1.2 million gallons of oil that have been cleaned up so far has cost the pipe's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, roughly $725 million—10 times as much, per liter, as the average spill of conventional crude. Ralph Dollhopf, who led the EPA's response to the incident, told local media that the agency had to "write the book" on dealing with a cleanup of tar sands bitumen.

The underlying issue, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift told me, is that US and Canadian officials don't know just how different dil-bit is from conventional crude. With US imports of tar sands bitumen projected to shoot up to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019 (up from 100,000 barrels in all of 2000), Swift said there remains a serious deficit in US and Canadian officials' understanding of how to manage potential spills. "The pipeline safety issue is just one of many areas where tar sands production hasn't been fully evaluated," he said. That didn't deter Alberta Premier Alison M. Redford from telling reporters she was "very optimistic" that the Keystone pipeline, which would likely be an economic windfall for her province, would be approved by the Obama administration should the president win reelection.

Twister Whispers

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 4:20 PM EST

A monster EF4 tornado with winds of 180 mp/h (290 km/h) that caused extreme damage in Harrisburg, Illinois, on leap day happened to travel across an array of seismographs recently deployed for studying earthquakes.

The scientists working with the OIINK array (named for its coverage of parts of the Ozarks, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky) thought their instruments had been destroyed by the twister. Instead, the seismographs recorded the tornado.

Or rather not the tornado itself, as their preliminary investigation suggests, but the passage of the large atmospheric pressure transient pushing ahead of the thunderstorm that spawned the tornado... one of an anomalous number of tornadoes so far this winter. Some of which may add up 2012's first billion-dollar disaster in the US .

 Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University
Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University University

In the image above you can see the seismic stations sets against the ground path of the 29 Feb Harrisburg tornado. These stations are part of the NSF's EarthScope program planned to cover the entire US with a grid for detecting and better understanding and eventually maybe predicting earthquakes. Seems they might come in handy for tornadoes too.

I wrote about the EarthScope program here after Japan's 9.0 quake last year.

 

 

This animation shows  EarthScope stations lighting up in response to ground shaking following a 21 February 2008 earthquake in Wells, NV. From the video's YouTube page:

Each circle represents a seismometer and the colors change to reflect variations in the signal amplitude crossing the array. The ground motion begins near the source and then expands outward like a the waves from a pebble dropped in a pond. The circular wavefronts are distorted by the simple map projection used in the animation. The initial waves travel at about 8km/s, the larger amplitude waves that follow are moving at about 2.5km/s.

The amazing EarthScope array has been dubbed the upside-down telescope for its view into the dynamics of interior Earth.