Blue Marble - May 2012

Why the FDA's "High Fructose Corn Syrup Isn't Sugar" Verdict Doesn't Matter

| Thu May 31, 2012 12:19 PM EDT

Today, the FDA told the Corn Refiners (the good people behind that awesomely audacious series of ads about how corn syrup is natural) that they're not allowed to change the name of high fructose corn syrup to "corn sugar." Consumers Union cheered the ruling, stating in a press release that "If the name had been changed, it would have given consumers the wrong impression that this product is 'natural.'" Which it's definitely not.

I'm probably going to take a lot of flack for this, but I don't think the ruling makes a lot of difference one way or the other. Sure, it's nice to make the industry come clean about products that are heavily chemically processed (though cane sugar processing is hardly chemical-free), but the real problem with sweeteners is not quality but quantity. As I've said before, Americans eat too many sweeteners, period. And in excess, HFCS and sugar do the same bad things to your body: They can trigger insulin resistance and lead to a whole host of metabolic problems.

The HFCS verdict is sure to please the sugar refiners, who aren't exactly small-batch artisenal craftsmen. In fact, the two industries have been locked in a decades-long PR battle, of which this is just the latest skirmish. I'm not saying that today's ruling is a bad thing; there are plenty of perfectly valid reasons to be wary of HFCS—most recently, the stuff has been linked to memory loss. But just because cane sugar gets to be called "natural" doesn't mean it's good for you.

Okay, done ranting, you can go back to eating your cupcake now. 

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Toxic Flame Retardants: Now In Your Food

| Thu May 31, 2012 11:57 AM EDT

Flame retardants are everywhere—in our TVs and other electronics, in couches and chairs, and even in pajamas other products designed for babies. They're even in our bodies—and at higher rates for minority children, according to one recent study. Apparently these toxic chemicals are also finding their way into our food, according to a new paper published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers tested foods like fish, beef, and deli meats from a local grocery stores in Dallas, Texas. They found that 15 of the 36 foods they tested had detectable levels of hexabromocyclododecane (HBCD), a brominated flame retardant often found in insulation and electrical equipment. HBCD has been linked to problems in the immune and reproductive systems and endocrine disruption, and has been found to cause neurotoxic effects in children. It is considered a "persistent organic pollutant" because it sticks around the environment for a long time, is toxic, and can travel over long distances. This is why chemicals from an electronics manufacturer can end up in waterways—and in fish—a long way away.

"It's getting into us, and some of it is getting into us from food," Dr. Arnold Schecter, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health and lead author of the paper, told Mother Jones. Schecter has previously studied levels of HBCD and other similar chemicals in humans, and says that what worries him most is not just finding the presence of this particular chemical, but the cumulative impact of a variety of toxic chemicals in our environment.

"What concerns me is that many of the toxic chemicals we're looking for, we're finding," said Schecter. "It isn't just this one. This is part of a mixture of toxic chemicals we're finding and reporting in food, and also breast milk and blood."

The highest levels of the chemical were found in canned sardines, followed by smoked turkey sausages and fresh salmon. Schecter said animal products were most likely to carry the chemicals, because it accumulates in fatty tissue.

Flame retardants have been all over the news recently, after the Chicago Tribune's devastating series of stories detailing the politics and science of these chemicals. Previous studies have documented that they're in out blood, body fat, and in breast milk, but this is the first study in the US investigating whether these chemicals are making their way into the food chain.

The US has started phasing out some flame retardants linked to health problems, like those that contain polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE). But it has not done so with HBCDs, the kind in this latest study. Recent studies about health impacts did prompt the US EPA to add it to its list of "Chemicals of Concern" in 2010. Earlier this year the European Union listed it as a chemical of "very high concern" and said it plans to ban it in the next three to five years.

As for what to do, Schecter says that eating less animal products is a good way to avoid the chemicals. "We're eating too much animals and too little fruits and vegetables," said Schecter. "For lots of reasons its good to eat less animals than the average American." He noted that he does like hamburgers however, and suggested buying leaner meats and broiling them if you're going to keep eating them.

Why Science Education Won't Solve Our Climate Problems

| Wed May 30, 2012 4:58 PM EDT
Important! But not the solution to climate change.

Think the reason we can't address climate change is because people don't understand climate science? Think again: a new study suggests that people with higher scientific comprehension use their abilities not to disinterestedly parse the complicated details of climate science, but to better fit available evidence to their preexisting values and group identifications.

A team of researchers associated with the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School compared scientific literacy and numeracy with beliefs about climate change and value-laden worldviews for an article published this week in Nature Climate Change. Their conclusions? As individuals' scientific comprehension went up, concern about climate change declined slightly. That relationship isn't what you'd expect to see if ignorance about science explained a lack of concern about climate change, as the "scientific comprehension thesis" (SCT) would suggest; the graph below demonstrates the difference between what SCT predicts and how people actually responded.

SCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions.  Kahan et.al, Nature Climate ChangeSCT prediction versus actual impact of science literacy and numeracy on climate change risk perceptions. Kahan et.al, Nature Climate Change

But not everyone with greater scientific understanding was equally likely to be less concerned about climate change; the correlation split sharply depending on respondents' worldviews. As the study explains, "members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom cultural polarization was greatest." While those results don't jibe with the SCT, they do make sense according something called the cultural cognition thesis (CCT), which suggests that people tend to perceive risks in a way that corresponds to the values of their identity groups.

Think about it: An oil worker who expresses concern about climate change may be mocked, while an English professor who calls climate science a hoax may be shunned. People therefore adjust their beliefs to fit those of others around them: according to the study, "public divisions over climate change stem not from the public’s incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: between the personal interest individuals have in forming beliefs in line with those held by others with whom they share close ties and the collective one they all share in making use of the best available science to promote common welfare." Or, as researcher Ellen Peters of Ohio State University puts it, "What this study shows is that people with high science and math comprehension can think their way to conclusions that are better for them as individuals but are not necessarily better for society."

Japan Quake and Tsunami Rattled Upper Atmosphere

| Wed May 30, 2012 3:04 PM EDT

Travel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechTravel-time plots of observed ionospheric perturbations and modeled ocean tsunami within 1,500 km (932 miles) of earthquake's epicenter NASA/JPL-CaltechThe 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northeastern Japan in March 2011 did more than rattle the ground and upheave the ocean. Shock waves also rippled all the way up through the ionosphere—the upper atmosphere stretching ~50-500 miles above Earth's surface.

That motion was observed in the signals between GPS satellites and a dense network of ground receivers around Japan, reports NASA. The video explains these observations, never before seen in so much detail for a quake and tsunami of this size. 

 

 

Energy Companies Say One Thing, Do the Opposite on Climate Change

| Wed May 30, 2012 12:29 PM EDT

Many large corporations are saying one thing and doing another on climate change, the Union of Concerned Scientists found in a study released Wednesday.

The group examined the role that 28 publicly-traded companies played in two significant efforts to address climate change: the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health, and the 2010 ballot initiative in California to suspend the state's own climate law. (Here are links to the executive summary and the full report). 

UCS found that many oil and electric companies were actively engaged in efforts to obstruct climate policy. Chesapeake Energy, Tesoro, Murphy Oil, Occidental Petroleum, Valero Energy, and Peabody Energy were consistently opposed to dealing with climate change: both their PR and their actions worked against new, science-based laws to cut greenhouse gases.

Other companies were less straightforward about their positions. ExxonMobil put out corporate PR that was positive about climate policy while engaging in actions that undermined efforts to deal with climate change. For example, its contributions to anti-climate-action lawmakers outweighed contributions to pro-climate-action lawmakers by a ratio of 10 to 1.

ConocoPhillips, another oil giant, touted on its website that it "recognizes that human activity … is contributing to increased concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that can lead to adverse changes in global climate." The company has given money to the Nature Conservancy, and it was a member of groups like the Carbon Disclosure Project, U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Sounds like a friend of the environment, right?

But while it was touting its supposedly green positions and alliances, ConocoPhillips also submitted comments to the EPA suggesting that there is a "high degree of uncertainty" about the negative effects of climate change on public health and well-being. It pulled out of USCAP right before climate legislation was supposed to go before the Senate, and established a campaign to get its employees to actively lobby senators against the bill. ConocoPhillips spent 15 times as much money electing anti-climate-action lawmakers as it did on pro-climate-action lawmakers. And it was a dues-paying member of groups like the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the US Chamber of Commerce that spent huge sums opposing climate action.

The report isn't all bad news. Nike, for example, got high marks for consistency in its statements and actions, like resigning from the Chamber of Commerce in protest of its anti-climate work. The company also signed onto a letter to President Obama supporting climate legislation, and spent three times as much money on pro-climate-action politicians. Nuclear giant NRG Energy was also consistent in its messages and actions in support of climate action.

As UCS notes, their findings are limited by the lack of transparency in the business world—in other words, much of what these corporations do behind the scenes is not clear. So the report covers just a small portion of what these companies have been up to on climate.

Is the California Condor Out of the Woods?

| Wed May 30, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

This post was originally published at Scientific American.

Condor chick being fed by condor feeding puppet Wikimedia CommonsCondor chick being fed by condor feeding puppet Wikimedia CommonsThe population of endangered California condors (Gymnogyps californianus) hit an important milestone last month, reaching a high of 405 birds—quite an achievement for a species that was down to its last 22 individuals just 25 years ago.

California condors—North America's largest birds, with a wingspan of up to 2.8 meters—were almost wiped out by poaching, DDT and lead poisoning before all of the remaining birds at the time were brought in from the wild in 1987. Captive breeding programs have increased the number of condors dramatically since then, and according to the April 30 census cited by The Oregonian, there are now 226 California condors living in the wild in California, Arizona and nearby Baja, Mexico. An additional 179 birds live in zoos and breeding centers. The population has increased more than 20 percent in the last two and a half years alone.

But condors still face threats on several fronts, chief among them the continued use of lead bullets by hunters in Arizona. California banned lead ammunition in the condors' habitats in 2007, but efforts to limit its use in Arizona have so far failed. Condors, as scavengers, eat the carcasses of animals killed by lead ammo (or the "gut piles" of innards left behind by hunters) and often die as a result. At least 22 of the condors released in Arizona have died from lead poisoning, according to a report from MSNBC. Up to 95 percent of the birds in the state have lead present in their blood, and a painful and sometimes fatal process called chelation is often used to remove the lead from their bodies in both states.

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LA Bans Plastic Bags—Is Your Town Next?

| Fri May 25, 2012 2:01 PM EDT

Attention Los Angelinos: It's time to start hoarding those plastic shopping bags you love so much. The Los Angeles City Council voted on Wednesday to phase out plastic bags over the next 16 months. The city will eventually implement a 10-cent charge for paper bags, too.

LA is the largest city to approve a ban on "single-use" plastic bags in supermarkets. The ban is a victory for environmentalists, who campaigned for it for years. The decision did not pass without complaint, however—employees of plastic bag companies and some consumers have voiced concerns over the change.

LA's not the only city that has passed a plastic bag ban. Here are some other places that have similar ordinances:

  • San Francisco was the first US city to adopt a plastic shopping bag ban in April 2007. The ordinance originally applied only to supermarket and pharmacy chains but was expanded to all retail establishments earlier this year.
  • Maui, Hawaii banned plastic bags in August, 2008, becoming the first county in Hawaii to do so. Since then, Kauai and Honolulu have also passed legislation to ban plastic bags.
  • Washington, D.C. has charged 5 cents for all disposable shopping bags since 2010. The tax has reduced plastic bag use.
  • In December, Seattle unanimously passed an ordinance banning single-use plastic bags and forcing stores to begin charging for paper bags. The new rules will go into effect later this year.
  • In March, Austin adopted a ban on all single-use shopping bags for all business establishments. The ban begins in 2013.
  • Portland passed a plastic bag ban in July 2011 after the state legislature failed to pass a state-wide ban.

At this rate, it's only a matter of time before folks with fashionable eco-friendly tote bags no longer stand out in a crowd.

Also, it seems that the British are behind the trend, too:

Record Early Start to Hurricane Season

| Fri May 25, 2012 2:00 PM EDT

Hurricane Bud at 1345z on 25 May 2012 NOAAHurricane Bud at 1345 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NOAA Last night Hurricane Bud off Mexico's west coast peaked at Category 3 strength, with 115 mile-per-hour winds. That makes it the earliest Category 3 hurricane on record this early in the Eastern Pacific. As Jeff Masters writes at Wunderblog:

Hurricanes are uncommon in the Eastern Pacific in May; there have been just twelve since record keeping began in 1949—an average of one May hurricane every five years. If Bud ends up making landfall in Mexico as a hurricane, it would be only the second Eastern Pacific May hurricane on record to hit Mexico.

Sea surface temperatures in degrees Celsius. NOAASea surface temperatures on 24 May 2012, in degrees Celsius: NOAA Masters also notes that sea surface temperatures (SSTs) this year in the Pacific where Aletta and Bud formed are slightly above average... though he concludes that large-scale atmospheric patterns are the more likely cause of this year's exceptionally early start to hurricane season in the Eastern Pacific.

Near-average SSTs are one factor NOAA is citing in its prediction for a near normal hurricane season on the Atlantic side this year—with 9 to 15 named storms, 4 to 8 hurricanes, 1 to 3 major hurricanes, and an Accumulated Cyclone Energy for the season ranging from 65 to 140 percent of the median.

94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012 NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science94L at 1915 Zulu on 25 May 2012: NASA | NOAA | GOES Project Science At the moment the National Hurricane Center is following a system called Invest 94L 275 miles southeast of the Carolinas. There's currently an 80 percent chance this system will develop into a tropical or subtropical cyclone in the next 48 hours and turn west into the US coast over the weekend.

The good news is that 94L, which may develop into Beryl, will likely bring relief to the severe drought underway in the US Southeast. 

Senate Says 'Frankenfish' Don't Need More Testing

| Fri May 25, 2012 2:00 PM EDT
It's alive!

Despite strong lobbying from northwestern senators for a measure that would require more testing of genetically engineered salmon before it's introduced in the US,  the Senate on Thursday voted it down. The "frankenfish" measure, introduced by Alaskan Republican Lisa Murkowski, failed by a 46-50 vote.

Murkowski put forth the measure as an amendment to the Food and Drug Administration Reauthorization Bill (a measure that would create a user-fee to partially fund FDA's work).  Her measure would have required that the FDA hold off on approving or rejecting so-called "test tube salmon" until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has done its own tests on the environmental and economic impacts the salmon might have on fisheries.

The FDA granted preliminary approved for GE salmon back in September 2010, but it remains a contentious issue. If approved, it would be the first GE animal approved for human consumption in the US.

AquaBounty Technologies has been seeking approval for the fish for 15 years. The fish is an Atlantic salmon that has been tweaked to include a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to grow to full size in half the time it takes for normal Atlantic salmon. But that's probably the least strange thing about them. As the Los Angeles Times described last year, the company's proposal "calls for the embryos of the fish to be sterilized in Canada before being shipped to Panama, where the males would be exposed to estrogen and sex-reversed."

Murkowski and other opponents argue that the FDA is not looking at the wider environmental concerns. Agitating against GE salmon is a bipartisan issue in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Murkowski's cosponsors included Democratic Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich, Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, and Oregon Democrat Jeff Merkley—all from states where the salmon industry is a big player. The fast-growing GE salmon would provide stiff competition with regular salmon.

"At my home, we eat a lot of salmon and I can stand there and I can say 'This is brain food, this is good for you, it’s loaded with Omega 3 fatty acids – it’s as good as you’re going to get.’ And I can say that with certainty," said Murkowski in a floor speech on Thursday. "We can’t say that, and we won’t say that with this genetically engineered fish. As a mom, I’m not going to say, 'Eat this Frankenfish.'"

Supporters of GE salmon argue that the modified fish would help grow the industry in the US, and provide alternatives for declining natural fish stocks. And you could grow the fish in places where it doesn't live naturally, they argue.

While the measure failed, supporters at the Marine Fish Conservation Network said in an emailed statement that they believe the 46 votes in favor is "indicative of wide-spread concern on behalf of the public" about GE salmon. 

Frack-Friendly New Report Debunked

| Fri May 25, 2012 5:00 AM EDT

Earlier this month, the State University of New York at Buffalo released a report concluding that fracking is getting safer, as both industry and regulators are doing a better job. The study got plenty of coverage—the Associated Press, Forbes, WGRZ, Buffalo News—but in the week since it was released, it's been attacked for a number of flaws.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process by which a blast of chemicals, water, and sand are used to tap into natural gas reserves. It's also highly controversial, as many have raised concerns about the environmental and health impacts for people living near drilling sites. So it's not surprising that this report, the first from Buffalo's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, drew a lot of attention. 

But on Wednesday the university was forced to remove the "peer-reviewed" description it gave to the report, since it was not. And a reviewer from the Environmental Defense Fund notes that the paper draws some questionable conclusions that he did not actually endorse. On Thursday, the watchdog group Public Accountability Initiative (PAI) released a scathing review of the report, concluding that the data actually shows that the number of environmental problems related to fracking increased by 189 percent from 2008 to 2011.

PAI also found that two of the report authors had previously written a report paid for by the natural gas industry, and a third works for an environmental consulting firm involved in the natural gas industry. They also revealed that large portions of the paper were lifted, word-for-word, from a pro-fracking paper that three of the authors had written for the conservative think tank Manhattan Institute.

The University at Buffalo's Shale Resources and Society Institute is also getting more scrutiny for its own relationship to the energy industry. As PAI points out, a University at Buffalo spokesman told WGRZ News that the Shale Institute "does not have any external funding." But the institute's website notes that it is currently seeking future funding from outside grants, contracts, and memberships.

"Taken together," concludes PAI, "the serious flaws in the report, industry-friendly spin, strong industry ties, and fundraising plans raise serious questions about the Shale Resources and Society Institute's independence and the University at Buffalo’s decision to lend its independent, academic authority to the Institute's work."