Blue Marble - December 2012

Is Your Baby Sleeping in Carcinogens?

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 6:07 PM EST

UPDATE: Walmart announced Thursday evening that it will remove unlabeled items from its California stores.

The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health announced on Thursday that it is taking legal action against a group of retailers selling products—many of them designed for infants and toddlers—that are made with a carcinogen. That includes changing pads, crib mattress pads, nap mats, and baby seats.

The chemical TDCPP, also known as chlorinated Tris, was removed from clothing for babies back in the 1970s. But it can still be found in a number of products that contain flame retardant-laced foam. Since October, California has included the chemical on its list of carcinogens and required products that carry it to bear a warning label. (California is generally the most aggressive in forcing companies to remove or at least label harmful chemicals, and since manufacturers only tend to make one model of their product, the California labels usually appear everywhere in the US.)

But despite the fact that there have been concerns about this chemical for 40 years, it's still showing up in products at major retailers in California. CEH had products purchased at Target, Babies R Us, Walmart, and Kmart tested, and found the chemical in many products that weren't labeled as containing it. 

The CEH study found the chemical in products like the Sweet Beginnings Bassinet Pad, Dexbaby Safety Changing Pad, Peerless Plastics KinderMat, Baby Delight Snuggle Nest Portable Infact Sleeper, and the Nap Nanny Portable Infant Recliner (which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has already filed a complaint against, after five infants died while using the product), among others.

CEH has issued legal notices to the companies selling these products, asking them to recall products sold since the new labeling rule was put in place at the end of October, and to either remove the chemical from new products or label them appropriately if they include the chemical. If the legal notice is not addressed in 60 days, the group has signaled it will move ahead with a lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Target told the San Francisco Chronicle that the company "is committed to abiding by state and federal laws and regulations, and we expect our vendors to do the same."

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The Real War on Christmas: Climate Change

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 5:08 PM EST

Every year we hear about some new front in the "War on Christmas" that liberals are supposedly waging against this most important of all Christian holidays. But an actual war on Christmas is coming—and it's spurred by climate change. It's a liberal conspiracy!

The summer drought caused many Christmas holiday tree seedlings in Tennessee to die this year, The Tennessean reports:

Record heat and abnormally dry conditions conspired to cause significant losses, especially among seedlings and saplings, local growers say. That could result in higher prices in the future, when those trees would have been hitting the market.
"The drought sure made it rough this year," said Wayne Pressler, owner of Kirkwood Tree Farm in Clarksville, who estimated he lost about half of his roughly 400 trees.
Other growers reported losing up to 80 percent of trees that were planted in the past year, and as much as 20 percent of older trees, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said.

The Department of Agriculture notes that this won't really affect the trees people are buying this Christmas, since it takes trees six to seven years to get to an average height for holiday festivity status. But it will likely have an impact in a few years, when we're all fighting over a few statuesque firs or stuffing presents under some puny Charlie Brown pine.

Sandy Price Tag: $50 Billion

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST
A beach house in Far Rockaway, New York destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Kevin Drum wrote that Congress was "about to get hit in the head with the price of climate change." Well, here it is. On Wednesday, news broke that President Obama is expected to ask for around $50 billion in disaster aid in response to Hurricane Sandy. And even that is not nearly as much money as the affected states have asked the federal government to provide.

From the New York Times:

The White House is assembling a spending request to send to Capitol Hill as early as this week, and while the final sum is still in flux, it should fall between $45 billion and $55 billion. That represents an enormous sum at a time when Mr. Obama is locked in a titanic struggle with Republicans over the federal deficit, but is significantly less than the states sought.
Unless an austerity-minded Congress adds to the president’s plan, state leaders would have to figure out other ways to finance tens of billions of dollars of storm-related expenses or do without them. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were seeking a combined $82 billion in federal help both to clean up and restore damage from Hurricane Sandy as well as to upgrade and harden infrastructure to prepare for future storms.

Climate-fueled megastorms like Sandy, droughts, wild fires—none of these are cheap. And while this is one big, expensive storm, we've also been paying for billion-plus-dollar disasters more frequently in the paset few years.  For so long, all we seemed to hear from Congress about climate change were complaints that we can't afford to deal with it. Now that a giant bill is coming due, I wonder what they'll have to say.

Less Arctic Ice-->Less Sunlight Reflected Back-->Even Less Arctic Ice

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST

 Daily Arctic sea ice volume in thousands of cubic kilometers 1979-Aug 2012: Photo by ironpoison via Flickr. Graph modeled ice volume data from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington

Daily Arctic sea ice volume in thousands of cubic kilometers 1979-Aug 2012: Photo of melting ice by ironpoison via Flickr. Graph modeled ice volume data from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington. Mashup: Julia Whitty

The seventh annual Arctic Report Card released by NOAA finds the rapid melting underway in northern lands and waters is unlikely to diminish in the face of continued global warming. The single biggest finding: Despite fewer weird warm spells in the Arctic in 2012, compared to the past ten warm years, snow and ice extent continued to melt at a record-breaking pace.

Ominously a new mechanism seems to be driving these changes. Disappearing ice and snow no longer reflect as much sunlight from the Earth. Meanwhile increasingly open waters and snow-free lands absorb more sunlight. This creates a self-reinforcing cycle of continued melting even during cooler times. It bodes poorly for recovery or stability in the far north.

No one is more amazed at the staggering rate of change than the scientists observing it. Bob Pickart, a physical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and co-author of the Report Card (also principle investigator of the icebreaker cruise I tagged along on in the Arctic Ocean in October: see my Arctic Ocean Diaries)—tells me:

It is mind-boggling how quickly the Arctic system is changing and how unstable it appears to be. It is clear that there are strong, disturbing trends, but it is also evident how complex the system is and hence how hard it is to predict what all the consequences will be. In some ways I feel that the scientific community simply can't respond quickly enough to sort all these issues out. 

Jeremy Mathis, a chemical oceanographer at University of Alaska Fairbanks, and also principle investigator on the Arctic Ocean cruise I joined in October, tells me:

The 2012 Arctic Report Card is another stark reminder of how quickly the Arctic is charging. Sea ice extent is diminishing in summer at an unprecedented rate and we do not yet understand the biological consequences for other stressors such as ocean acidification. While there is no base-line left to study in the Arctic we should increase our efforts to monitor and anticipate how the rapid changes we our observing today will impact high latitude ecosystems and the charismatic megafauna that they support.

 Global warming is ampliified in the Arctic, where in the past decade no part of it was cooler than the long-term average:  NOAA climate.gov team

Global warming is amplified in the Arctic, where no part of was cooler than the long-term average in the past decade: NOAA climate.gov teamStay tuned. I'll be writing more in-depth about other changes in NOAA's Arctic Report Card in the coming days.

Listen: “The Climate of the 2020s and the 2030s is Already Preordained"

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST

Sometimes it's good to be reminded about reality—in that painful, cold shower kind of way. And British climatologist Professor Sir Bob Watson, former chair of the IPCC, pulled no punches during a withering, breathless indictment of climate inaction yesterday in his keynote address at the American Geophysical Union Fall meeting in San Francisco.

Perhaps the best thing to do is present to you with Sir Watson's conclusion, delivered at the crescendo of an hour-long lecture. It's what could be called the ultimate climate change stump speech:

We are not on a pathway to a two degree world—much more likely three to five. Climate change is not just an energy issue, but it's the way we manage our land: We've got a major challenge producing the food we need for 9 billion people by 2050, whilst simultaneously reducing emissions by agriculture. We absolutely need governance reform from the national to the global level. Vested interests in certain parts of industry are controlling the debate... We've got to eliminate perverse subsidies in transportation, energy and agriculture. They do little for the federal treasury, and they adversely affect the environment. We need to incentivize new policies to get them to penetrate the marketplace, some of the new renewable energy policies. We clearly need an Apollo-scale project on things such as carbon capture and storage. No single country should go it alone: We need Europe to work together with the US, Japan, China, and the private sector for the technologies we need for tomorrow. It's quite clear: there are cost-effective and equitable solutions to climate change, but we need more leadership, political will—they both seem to be in short supply at the moment—and it will require substantial changes in policies, practices and technologies, and they're not currently underway.

Take a listen:

Clothing Giant Zara Pledges to Ditch Toxic Chemicals

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 7:13 AM EST
Even the mannequins are protesting.

Talk about dirty laundry.

Last month we learned that our jeans and Ts might contain cancer causing chemicals. The news came from a Greenpeace report which also charged some of the world's largest clothing manufacturers with dumping toxic dyes and other pollutants into the waterways. 

The report sparked protests in 80 cities around the world from Greenpeace supporters who set their sights on Zara, the world's largest clothing retailer. Seven hundred protesters staged mannequin walkouts at Zara stores launching Greenpeace's Detox Campaign.

The effort seems to be working: Zara, its parent company Inditex, and Spanish-based retailer Mango pledged last week to eliminate all hazardous chemicals in their supply chains and products by 2020. Inditex will begin by requiring 120 of its suppliers to disclose pollution data by the end of next year, informing people living near these facilities about what chemicals are being discharged into their local environment.

While Greenpeace hails Zara's new pledge as a victory, reaching the 2020 commitment of removing toxic chemicals entirely will probably require a total overhaul of Zara's supply chain. If, like Walmart, Zara uses subcontractors, that would be quite a tall order.

For the sake of the people who live nearby these plants and the various species and plantlife that depend on these water sources (not to mention the 7 billion people who routinely wear clothes) here's hoping that Zara can make good on its promise.

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Google-Funded Drones To Hunt Rhino Poachers

| Wed Dec. 5, 2012 1:23 PM EST

First things first: No, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) is not using drones to vaporize poachers. But thanks to a five million dollar grant awarded by Google on Tuesday, the organization is expanding its use of unmanned aerial vehicles to track and deter criminals who illegally hunt endangered animal species around the world. 

WWF spokesman Lee Poston is not calling these vehicles drones, because he doesn't want people to confuse them with the military kind. According to Poston, they are "sophisticated radio-controlled devices like hobbyists use" that can be "controlled from your iPad or other device." But the WWF website does call them "conservation drones."

Prior to receiving the Google grant, the WWF had already deployed trackers in Nepal's national parks. These drones are light enough to be launched by hand and can be programmed to fly about 18 miles at a maximum elevation of 650 feet, for almost an hour. The cameras on the drones allow rangers on the ground to spot would-be poachers, especially in hard-to-reach places.

The Google funding will enable WWF to expand its drone program in Asia and Africa to protect rhinos, which are hunted for their horns; elephants, which are pursued for their tusks, and tigers, which are killed for everything from their eyes to their reproductive organs. The grant will also be used to advance wildlife tagging technology, specialized sensors, and ranger monitoring software.

The anti-poachers are exploring other high-tech measures as well. "We are looking into how to track animal parts using things like DNA," says Poston. "So if a ranger find a rhino horn on the ground, we can figure out what happened." 

The grant is part of Google's flagship Global Impact Award program, which this year, is providing a total of $23 million in funding to nonprofits addressing various challenges through technology and innovation. Some of the other organizations that received awards on Tuesday included the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media (which recently put out a study on why women have fewer speaking parts than men) and charity: water, which increases water access in developing countries through technology. 

This grant "is going to have a huge impact," says Ian Morrison, another WWF spokesman. "The poachers and the crime syndicates that fund them are getting more and more sophisticated, and it's time for us to step up our game too, and level the playing field." 

Note: This image is not an actual Google-funded drone. 

Here's How to Clean Up Dirty, Old Power Plants

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 7:39 PM EST

The Natural Resources Defense Council thinks it has the perfect solution to regulating planet-warming emissions from existing power plants. But can the group sell the Obama administration Environmental Protection Agency on it?

NRDC's plan, released on Tuesday, outlines a framework for using the Clean Air Act (Section 111d, to be exact) to set new regulations on the country's 1,500 existing coal plants. Rather than a straightforward limit on emissions—which would likely require major retrofits or shutting the plants down altogether—NRDC's plan is somewhat more flexible. For starters, each state would have targets based on current emissions—so states that get most of their power from coal would have lower, more realistic targets than states that get their power from, say, hydropower. The state would work toward lowering its average across all power plants to meet the targets. Ambitious states like California could still adopt tougher targets for themselves that require deeper emission cuts than the federal rules.

The plan also builds in some flexibility for how states meet the standards. An older plant could make pollution-reducing retrofits to meet the goal. Or it could switch to lower-emission fuel, like natural gas. Or the state could increase its use of renewable energy, make improvements on energy-efficiency so that they need to burn less fuel in the first place, or roll out programs to reduce the demand for electricity.

The EPA announced limits on greenhouse gas pollution from new power plants last March. The comment period on the new rule ended in June, but the EPA has not yet finalized the rule. But even when it does, the rules still won't address the oldest, dirtiest power plants. When the rules for new plants were unveiled, the EPA said it had "no plans" to start working on rules for old plants. The NRDC hopes this plan will offer some good ideas on how to do that.

NRDC says the plan would cut greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent below 2005 by 2020 and 34 percent by 2025. (That's more than the 17 percent reduction by 2020 that the US has pledged in international negotiations thus far.) The group projects that the plan would cost about $4 billion annually by 2020, but would save lives and healthcare costs by reducing other harmful emissions like nitrous and sulfur dioxide. The plan "overturns conventional wisdom that relying on the Clean Air Act has to be expensive and won't make much difference," said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC's climate and clean air program.

That's a key point, because EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has long said that the Clean Air Act is not an "ideal tool" for cutting emissions. This is why so many environmental groups threw all their weight into trying to pass a climate bill back in 2009, thinking it would be a way to build a better, more flexible set of regulations. But, as you well know, Congress didn't pass the bill in 2009 and doesn't look likely to do anything like that anytime soon. So, we're back to the Clean Air Act as the main vehicle for action on climate.

"For America's health and welfare, for the nation's economy, and for the health of our planet," said Lashof, "we can't afford not to produce strong emission reductions from existing power plants."

Chemical Dispersant Made BP Oilspill 52 Times More Toxic

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 6:37 PM EST

Female rotifer, Brachionus manjavacas, with eggs: R. Ric-Martinez et al. Invironmental Pollution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2012.09.024

Female rotifer, Brachionus manjavacas, with eggs: R. Rico-Martinez et al. Environmental Pollution. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2012.09.024 

A new study finds that adding Corexit 9500A to Macondo oil—as BP did in the course of trying to disperse its 2010 oilspill disaster—made the mixture 52 times more toxic than oil alone. The results are from toxicology tests in the lab and appear in the scientific journal Environmental Pollution.

Using oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout and Corexit the researchers tested the toxicity of oil, dispersant, and a mixture of oil and dispersant on five strains of rotifers—the lab rats of marine toxicology testing. Among the results:

  • The oil-dispersant mixture killed adult rotifers
  • As little as 2.6 percent of the mixture inhibited egg hatching by 50 percent  

The inhibition of egg hatching in bottom sediments is particularly ominous because rotifer eggs hatch each spring to live as adults in the water column where they are important food sources for larval and juvenile fish, for shrimp, crabs and other marine life in estuarine and shoreline ecosystems—including fisheries humans depend on.

"Dispersants are preapproved to help clean up oil spills and are widely used during disasters," said lead author Roberto-Rico Martinez currently at the Universidad Autonoma de Aguascalientes, Mexico. "But we have a poor understanding of their toxicity. Our study indicates the increase in toxicity may have been greatly underestimated following the Macondo well explosion."

I wrote here about the dramatic decline in microscopic life on BP's dispersed oil beaches and here about how using dispersant allowed oil to penetrate much more deeply into beaches possibly extending the toxic lifespan of the mix. I wrote here about how BP's oilspill has hammered Gulf fish.

 

 

The paper:

A Supposedly Fun Thing That's Still Really Dirty

| Tue Dec. 4, 2012 1:03 PM EST

Considering hopping aboard a cruise for the holidays? A new report from Friends of the Earth (FOE) might make you rethink your plans.

FOE just released a report card that evaluates 15 major cruise lines on their environmental footprint—and despite being graded on a curve, the class did not do well. Since the release of FOE's last report card in 2010, more than half have not significantly improved, and 11 were given a grade of a "C" or worse, including three who failed.

"I think the cruise industry for many, many years has really flown under the radar when it comes to environmental regulations," said Marcie Keever, oceans and vessels project director at FOE. "They travel to some of the most pristine places on the planet, and they should improve their practices to ensure those places remain pristine."