Blue Marble

Drought Weighing You Down? Nope, It's Lifting You Up

| Fri Aug. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Here's a odd piece of news: According to a study published Thursday in Science, the water loss due to this year's drought has caused the entire western side of the United States to literally rise. After examining data from nearly 800 GPS stations across the country, researchers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that the area west of New Mexico has risen by an average of four millimeters this year. In the Sierra Nevadas and along California's coast—two areas that have received far less precipitation this year than normal—the land rose 15 millimeters.

"The earth is an elastic material just like a block of rubber."

Adrian Borsa, a coauthor of the study, explained what's happening: "The earth is an elastic material just like a block of rubber. If you put a water load on it, the earth deforms, if you take the water away, the earth will come back." Using the GPS data, the researchers estimated that the Western United States has lost 62 trillion gallons of water to the atmosphere this year because of the drought. That's enough water to cover the entire Western US in six inches of water.

The earth rising seems not only vaguely biblical, but also counterintuitive; one might expect the earth's surface to fall if water is being taken from it. In fact, the ground is falling in some places: Some GPS stations in California had to be left out of the study because farmers are extracting so much groundwater that the ground is literally caving in. But this study didn't examine the ground at a surface-level—it showed that the earth's crust and mantle are responding elastically to the drought. So while some areas may be falling because of man-made changes at a local level, the West as a whole is rising.

As it turns out, the rise and fall of the earth due to water loss actually happens a little each year with the change of the seasons: Land is heavier in the winter and spring, and when water evaporates in the summer and fall, land is a little lighter. But the annual variation in California's mountains is about 5 millimeters—not this year's 15. The difference "sounds tiny," said Borsa, but from a geological standpoint, "it's a whopping signal" of the amount of water lost to the drought.

Contrary to most drought news these days, this rise of the West doesn't have looming disastrous effects in and of itself: The researchers, for example, don't think that this change will cause more extreme earthquakes.

But Borsa says that using GPS data on the rise of the earth could help regulators to understand how much water is being used in the West—particularly in California. California is the only Western state that doesn't measure or regulate major groundwater use; if you can drill down to it, it's all yours. A report produced for the state's Department of Food and Agriculture estimated that California's farmers will pump about 13 million acre-feet of groundwater this year—enough water to put a piece of land the size of Rhode Island 17 feet underwater.

With no regulatory system in place, though, it's challenging for officials to know if these estimates are lining up with reality. "The extractions aren't monitored, so no one really knows how to monitor the water supply," says Borsa. Using GPS data "could be a great tool for water managers."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Should Pregnant Women Eat Zero Tuna?

| Thu Aug. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food-safety experts at Consumer Reports crunched the numbers on mercury levels in seafood—and they have a new recommendation for pregnant women: Don't eat tuna at all.

The FDA recommends that pregnant and nursing women consume between 8 and 12 ounces of fish per week to provide proper nutrition for a baby's brain development and overall health. But some fish are very high in mercury, a neurotoxin that can lead to serious cognitive problems and birth defects in children and babies. And the mercury levels in oceans are rising—humans have tripled the mercury content in oceans since the Industrial Revolution—leading to further mercury absorption by predators like tuna.

Consumer Reports provides charts to help curb mercury levels during fish consumption. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

A team at the Consumer Reports National Research Center analyzed data from the Food and Drug Administration's chart on mercury levels in seafood and determined that consuming 6 ounces of albacore tuna in a week—the level recommended as safe by the FDA for pregnant women—would put a 125-pound woman over the Environmental Protection Agency's "safe" mercury threshold by more than two ounces.

Canned light tuna is thought to offer a lower mercury tuna option, but 20 percent of the FDA's samples of it contained almost double the average level of mercury that it's supposed to. Some samples had more mercury than the king mackerel—one of the FDA's top four high-in-mercury fish—which the agency advises pregnant women and children to avoid. Canned tuna constitutes the second most frequently consumed seafood product in the United States.

Some experts like Deborah Rice, a former senior risk assessor for the EPA, think that research since 2001 suggests that there is "no question" that the FDA and EPA's current limit for mercury consumption is "too high," she told Consumer Reports. The magazine is urging the FDA and EPA to recommend that pregnant women avoid eating any tuna—and to provide more safety information concerning tuna for pregnant women, children and people who eat a lot of fish (24 ounces of fish, around seven servings, or more per week).

How Much It Costs to Raise a Kid, in 4 Charts

| Tue Aug. 19, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

A middle-income family with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend about a quarter of a million dollars in child-rearing expenses over the next 18 years, according to a new report from the USDA.

Costs such as housing, food, transportation, clothing, health care, child care, and education will amount to an expected $304,340 ($245,340 in 2013 dollars) for middle-income families, a 1.8 percent increase from last year's report. For each income bracket, costs will increase as the child ages:

Although households with incomes in the lowest third will spend less than half as much on child-related costs as higher income families, their spending will amount to a far greater percent of total income.

Housing is the highest child-rearing expenditure, amounting to 30 percent of expenses for middle-income, husband-wife families with two children. Raising a child is costliest in the urban Northeast and least expensive in rural areas.

USDA

The report notes that child-rearing costs have grown 24 percent since 1960, when a middle-income family could have expected to spend $25,230 ($198,560 in 2013 dollars). The USDA has also released an interactive calculator to help families estimate child-rearing costs based on type of household, number of children, location, and income.

Are Your Kids' Rainbow Bracelets Toxic?

| Tue Aug. 12, 2014 1:35 PM EDT

Bracelets and other trinkets made on the wildly popular Rainbow Loom—a toy that allows kids to weave together brightly colored elastic bands—could contain cancer-causing chemicals, a British laboratory has found.

In a study commissioned by a British toy retailer, the Assay Laboratory in Birmingham, United Kingdom, tested charms meant to be attached to bracelets and necklaces woven on the looms. The researchers found that while Rainbow Loom's own name-brand products were safe, some charms made by knockoff brands contained high levels of phthalates, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Some of the knockoff charms were composed of as much as 50 percent (by weight) phthalates, the Irish blog Mummy Pages reports. (It's currently illegal in the United States to sell a toy that contains more than 0.1 percent of six kinds of phthalates, though some products still slip through the cracks.)

Marion Wilson, a spokeswoman from the lab, told Mummy Pages that while only the charms were tested, it was likely that the bands themselves also contained phthalates. In an email to Mother Jones, Wilson declined to share the names of the brands that were found to have high phthalate levels. "We would never share our customer information as it is clearly commercially sensitive," she wrote. "However, please note that the customers that have received test results like this will have tested the product prior to it going on the market." It's unclear whether the brands tested at the lab are sold in the United States as well as in the United Kingdom.

Phthalates aren't the only dangerous thing about Rainbow Looms: BuzzFeed notes other horrors, including injuries to children. Animal advocates in the Philippines say that the bands can harm creatures that swallow them.

Video: "Holy Shit!" Freak Weather Event Stuns Brooklyn's Hipster Beach

| Sun Aug. 10, 2014 5:12 PM EDT

The weekend peace and quiet of McCarren Park in Brooklyn, New York—sometimes dubbed the "hipster beach" by locals—was shattered on Sunday afternoon​ by a strange, towering meteorological visitor. And also by the howls of my friend Michael Gambale, who took this video, yelling like the world was fast coming to an end. "It was amazing," he said. "I had my 'oh shit, a double rainbow' moment."​

The spiraling, orange tunnel-like phenomenon appears to be a textbook specimen of a "dust devil", which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration​ definition, is a "small, rapidly rotating wind that is made visible by the dust, dirt or debris it picks up." It's not a tornado, which is much more powerful and connected to a cloud, and certainly not as dangerous (though in 1992, an Alburquerque dust devil produced 70 mph winds, equivalent to a typical severe thunderstorm.) Instead, according to NASA, "a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground. As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right." And they were.

According to Gambale, who was relaxing in the park with friends, it lasted about a minute, leaving some locals "perplexed", and others filled with a sense of adventure: "Some dude ran into it, that's why I said don't run into it," Gambale added. "And he did! He just got all dusty. It wasn't that strong obviously."

But don't diss the dust devil by calling it weak or short-lived: "It's a dirtbag hipster tornado and it's Brooklyn's."

The only other reference I could find to "twister" in McCarren park was of a very different kind: Mass "Twister" performed by a marauding group of Santas for 2009's Santacon. I like this one much better.

See? Everything exciting happens in Brooklyn.

Shorter Trees Could Make Peaches Cheaper

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 7:18 PM EDT
Millions of peaches, peaches for me.

When it comes to peach and nectarine trees, bigger isn't necessarily better. An orchard worker can spend as much as half of his or her day lugging around the ladders required to reach the branches of a typical 13-foot tree. Plus, the danger of climbing the ladders drives up the cost of workers' compensation insurance—growers of peaches and nectarines pay about 40 percent more for it than growers of low-lying fruit like grapes.

Now scientists at the University of California are trying to shrink the cost of labor on peach and nectarine farms by shrinking the plants themselves. In a 4-acre orchard south of Fresno, researchers are growing trees that they expect to max out at seven or eight feet. They say the shorter trees, which would not require a ladder to harvest or prune, could cut down on worker injuries and slash labor costs by more than 50 percent. If cultivated correctly, the mini-trees could be as fruitful as their taller counterparts.

If the experimental orchard works, it could have environmental perks too. In comments to UC Davis, one farmer estimated it costs him $1,400 an acre to thin his 250-acre peach and nectarine farm. Because of the high cost of ladders, many of his fellow growers are switching to almonds, he said. And almonds, as we've said before, are sucking California dry.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Humans Have Tripled Mercury in the Oceans

| Fri Aug. 8, 2014 1:23 PM EDT

On Thursday, researchers released the first comprehensive study of mercury in the world's oceans over time according to depth. Their finding: Since the Industrial Revolution, the burning of fossil fuels and some mining activities have resulted in a more than three times increase in mercury in the upper 100 meters (about 330 feet) of the ocean. There, it builds up in carnivorous species like tuna—a food staple in the US that health experts have been concerned about for years because of its high mercury levels. Much of the 290 million moles (a unit of measure for chemical substances) of mercury in the ocean right now is concentrated in the North Atlantic.

Humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." 

A neurotoxin, mercury is especially dangerous for children and babies: The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that exposure to it can lead to "poor mental development, cerebral palsy, deafness and blindness." In adults, mercury poising can lead to problems with blood pressure regulation, memory, vision, and sensation in fingers and toes, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if that wasn't scary enough, it's invisible, odorless, and hiding in fish meat.

The researchers say that the increase in mercury levels is starting to overcome the natural ocean circulation patterns. Typically, the coldest, saltiest water in the world's oceans naturally sinks and brings much of the mercury along with it, offering shelter to marine life from the chemicals. But now, because of the sheer volume of the stuff, the circulation of water can no longer keep mercury out of shallower depths. According to co-author Carl Lamborg, humans are "starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us." According to David Krebbenhoft, a geochemist working for the US Geological Survey, these shifts are directly correlated to the increase in mercury outputs over time.

The good news: If we can curb power plant mercury emissions and buy more products with reduced mercury, we can expect to see ocean mercury levels drop in the future. Says Krebbenhoft, "It's cause for optimism and should make us excited to do something about it because we may actually have an impact."

Wildfires Cause Nearly a Fifth of Manmade Carbon Emissions

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 4:27 PM EDT
A helicopter drops water on a wildfire in Oregon

Wildfires are raging around the western United States: As of yesterday, more than 10,000 firefighters were battling 20 fires in Oregon and California. Another fire in Washington state recently grew to cover more than 8,000 acres. While the immediate consequences of the blazes are obvious—scorched earth, destroyed homes, millions of dollars in damages—the longer-term consequences for the climate have, until now, been poorly understood.

In a study published at the end of July in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University engineer, says the burning of biomass like trees, plants, and grass—either by accident or deliberately (often to create room for agriculture)—creates 18 percent of all human-caused carbon emissions. Worse yet, that pollution kills people: Around the world, Jacobson writes, biomass burning may account for 5-10 percent of all air pollution deaths worldwide, or about 250,000 people annually.

Lightning strikes and lava flows can burn down forests just as effectively as campfires, cigarettes, and slash and burn agriculture. But worldwide, Jacobson notes, the proportion of wildfires that are caused by nature could be as low as 3.6 percent. The rest are started by humans.

Possibly the worst news of all: Wildfires are part of a vicious circle. Emissions from fires cause climate change, which leads to drier conditions—which make it easier for humans and nature to start fires and for those fires to spread.

A Picture of Your Leg Hair Can Give Away Your Identity

| Thu Aug. 7, 2014 10:39 AM EDT

It's hard to forget Tom Cruise replacing his eyeballs in Minority Report. But in the future, that might not be enough to keep him hidden from the law.

A few days ago, scientists at MIT announced they can listen in on conversations by videotaping a potato chip bag sitting next to the speakers. They could even identify who was talking.

From your veins to your walk, sophisticated computer algorithms keep getting better at identifying you based on things there’s no way to password protect. This research, called “soft biometrics,” is making it into ATMs, courtrooms, and even passports. Here are five creepy ways scientists can figure out who you are.

 

Your Potato Chips

You might not see the objects around you vibrate when you talk, but cameras do. And those vibrations carry enough information to identify your voice, or even eavesdrop on your conversation.

With a regular digital camera pointed at a chip bag, a potted plant, or a glass of water, MIT researchers could tell how many people were in a room, as well as the gender of each speaker. If they knew enough about a speaker's voice, they could even pick them out of the crowd. Give the scientists a high speed camera, and they can turn the vibrations into a high-tech wiretap.

 

Your Body Hair

Roblan/Shutterstock

Your beach photos may give more away than you think. Chinese computer scientists have written a program that can take a low-resolution picture of a leg and identify it based on patterns in androgenic hair, which is hair you grow after puberty. It always grows in the same pattern, like a furry fingerprint. Other androgenic hair includes chest and pubic hair, beards, and even the coarse hair on your arms.

The scientists tested extremely grainy photos, between 25 to 6.25 dots of "ink" per inch—for reference, inkjet printers generally print between 300 and 700 d.p.i. So it might be possible to ID someone in a Facebook photo that doesn't show a face, or even a video screencap.

 

Your Veins

The pattern of blood vessels near the surface of your skin stays largely the same throughout your life. In Japan, many ATMs have you scan your palm before taking out cash, and several Swedish stores let you pay with your veins.

The technology isn't only good for commercial purposes, though. Someday soon, you might be identified in a courtroom by a color photo that shows only a patch of skin.

 

Your Ears

A few years ago, the internet lit up with news that airports might start snapping candids of all our ears as we walk through security. While ears still haven't taken the TSA by storm, there's certainly the technology to do it.

From birth on, our ears stay about the same shape, even as they get proportionally bigger. That gives ear shots a leg up over facial recognition, which will probably never be able to identify adults from childhood pictures.


The Way You Walk

Gait analysis is already in common use for forensics. Even in low-res security footage, everything from the way your head bobs to the length of your stride makes you unique. The Guinness Book of World Records lists the first courtroom use of this kind of biomechanics as 2000, when a jury convicted a burglar based on a grainy security video that showed the criminal's distinct walk.

Your House Is Killing You: Couch Edition

| Wed Aug. 6, 2014 2:55 PM EDT

Couch potatoes take heed: Sofas and beds, like so many other household items we hear about these days, might be messing with our bodies.

A study on fire retardants written by scientists at the Environmental Working Group and Duke University and published this week in Environmental Science and Technology delivered some pretty disturbing news: Of the 22 mothers and 26 children tested, 100 percent showed exposure to a fire retardant called TDCIPP, a likely carcinogen, and the average concentration in children was nearly five times that of their moms. The study measured the concentration of fire retardant "biomarkers," or compounds produced when the fire retardants are broken down, in the participants' urine. In addition to finding TDCIPP, researchers found high levels of the chemicals used to make the popular fire retardant brand, FireMaster.

The Environmental Working Group report accompanying the study explains, "People end up with fire retardants in their bodies mainly by inhaling or swallowing dust." Many flame retardants are "additives," meaning that they are added to our furniture and other products instead of binding with chemicals through chemical reactions. This makes them a lot more likely to migrate out of the products in the form of dust.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher flame retardant levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates.

The researchers suspected that kids had higher exposure levels than their mothers simply because they spend more time on the floor, where dust accumulates, and because they put their hands in their mouths more. A study from earlier this year found that kids who wash their hands five or more times a day had fire retardants on their hands at concentration levels 30 to 50 percent lower than those who washed their hands less frequently.

Here's a rundown of four of the chemicals examined in the most recent study, their associated health effects, and where they are commonly found:

TDCIPP is a common flame retardant in couches, mattresses, and other cushioned furniture. A 2012 Duke University analysis of 102 couch cushion samples found evidence of TDCIPP in more than half of the couches purchased after 2005. The scientists also found traces of the retardant in over a third of the 101 car seats, baby carriers, portable mattresses, and other baby products sampled. Animal studies have shown TDCIPP to cause tumors in multiple organs, and TDCIPP is listed in California as a carcinogen and labeled by the Consumer Product Safety Commission as a "probable carcinogen." The TDCIPP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 100 percent of mothers. The children's concentrations were, on average, nearly five times larger than those of their own moms.

FireMaster components: Three of the chemicals studied are components of FireMaster 550 and FireMaster 600, two products of a fire retardant brand produced by chemical manufacturer Chemtura and commonly used in mattresses and furniture cushioning. The 2012 study by researchers at Duke found evidence of FireMaster 550 in 18 percent of couches purchased after 2005 and 17 percent of baby products. The components:

  • TPhP is the second most frequently detected fire retardant in the foam of couches purchased after 2005 (after TDCIPP). In addition to being part of FireMaster 550, it’s a common plasticizer in rubber and vinyl, used in things like shower curtains, and rubber and plastic toys. Not much is known about the health effects of TPhP, but recent studies show that TPhP could be an endocrine disruptor, associated with decreased sperm count and increased estrogenic activity. The TPhP biomarker was found in 100 percent of kids and 95 percent of mothers, with children showing concentrations nearly three times that of their mothers.
  • ip-TPhP, an isomer of TPhP, is another component of FireMaster 550. Like TPhP, little is known about the long-term health effects of ip-TPhP exposure.
  • EH-TBB is a component of FireMaster 550 and 600. When combined with flame retardant TBPH in a 2008 study, it caused developmental and reproductive damage to lab animals.  EH-TBB biomarkers were found in 70 percent of kids and 27 percent of mothers.

Amy Lamott, a representative Chemtura, acknowledged that these chemicals are in FireMaster products, but wrote, "We rigorously test our products to ensure the risk of health effects is low and the fire protection benefits are real. Our products have been approved by an EPA review process, and we review any study that might offer new information. In a real world environment, exposure levels of flame retardants are low—and the fire safety benefit outweighs any potential risk that has been found."

In 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds.

The recent studies on flame retardants still beg the question: why are we putting these chemicals in furniture to begin with? Back in 1975, California passed a law requiring the foam of all furniture sold in the state to withstand the ignition of a small flame for twelve seconds. One cheap and easy way for furniture manufacturers to live up to the standard was apply large amounts of fire retardants to the foam—of the 102 couch foams sampled in the 2012 study referenced above, 85 percent of them contained at least one fire retardant, and the chemicals accounted for as much as 11 percent of the weight of couch foam. Many furniture companies douse all of their foam in retardants in order to avoid making California-specific furniture, but because there are no federal labeling laws, consumers often can't tell what's in their furniture. The same 2012 study found that 60 percent of unlabeled couch foam samples contained fire retardants.

When studies started suggesting that PBDE, a class of common flame retardants, was associated with neurodevelopmental problems in children, chemical manufacturers phased out PBDE chemicals between 2004 and 2013. The Duke/EWG study released this week was the first study to test exposure levels to flame retardants that have become popular since the phase out of PBDE.

Despite all this glum news, things may be looking up. In 2012, California Governor Jerry Brown revised the flame law due to health concerns about flame retardants and the inefficacy of applying retardants to foam rather than to the surface of furniture. The new law, effective January 1st of this year, requires furniture manufacturers to meet a "smolder test" instead of the 12-second test. The flame retardants listed above aren't prohibited—they're simply not required to meet the new standards. Old furniture dispenses dust long after it's bought and it's too soon to tell how much the new law will affect chemical treatment of furniture, but for now, we can keep our (recently washed) fingers crossed.