Blue Marble

The 10 American Cities With the Dirtiest Air

| Thu Apr. 30, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Nearly 44 percent of Americans live in areas with dangerous levels of ozone or particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association's annual "State of the Air" report, published yesterday.

The good news is that's actually an improvement over last year's report, which showed that 47 percent of the population lived in these highly polluted places. Overall, the air has been getting cleaner since Congress enacted stricter regulations in the 1970s, and the American Lung Association report, which looked at data from 2011 through 2013, showed a continuing drop in the air emissions that create the six most widespread pollutants.

This year, short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat.

But don't pat yourself on the back just yet. Many cities experienced a record number of days with high levels of particle pollution, a mixture of solid and liquid droplets in the air that have been linked to serious health problems. Short-term particle pollution was especially bad in the West, in part due to the drought and heat, which may have increased the dust, grass fires and wildfires. Six cities—San Francisco; Phoenix; Visalia, California; Reno, Nevada.; Yakima, Washington; and Fairbanks, Alaska—recorded their highest weighted average number of unhealthy particle pollution days since the American Lung Association started covering this metric in 2004.

Los Angeles held its rank as the metropolitan area with the worst ozone pollution, even as it saw its best three-year period since the first report 16 years ago: the city experienced a one-third reduction in its average number of unhealthy ozone days since the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, states on the east coast showed the most headway in cleaning up their air, with major drops in year-round particle pollution. The American Lung Association attributed the improvement to a push for cleaner diesel fleets and cleaner fuels in power plants.

"The progress is exactly what we want to see, but to see some areas having some of their worst episodes was unusual," said Janice Nolen, an air pollution expert with the association, referring to the record-breaking days of short-term particle pollution.

Data is missing for some of the dirtiest cities in the Midwest, including Chicago and St. Louis, due in part to problems at data labs in Illinois and Tennessee. Similar problems in Georgia also prevented researchers from assessing changes in Atlanta, another city notorious for air pollution.

Outdoor air pollution has been linked to about 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide, by causing or exacerbating lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, acute lower respiratory infections, ischaemic heart disease, and strokes. And unfortunately, it seems people of color and with low incomes are often exposed to the dirtiest air.

Using data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association ranked cities around the country in terms of their year-round particle pollution, or the annual average level of fine particles in the air. These fine particles can come from many sources, including power plants, wildfires, and vehicle emissions, and breathing them in over such long periods of time have been linked to lung damage, increased hospitalizations for asthma attacks, increased risk for lower birth weight and infant mortality, and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

Here are the 10 cities with the lowest levels of year-round particle pollution:

1. Prescott, Arizona

2. Farmington, New Mexico

3. Casper, Wyoming

3. Cheyenne, Wyoming

5. Flagstaff, Arizona

6. Duluth, Minnesota-Wisconsin

6. Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville, Florida

6. Salinas, California

10. Anchorage, Alaska

10. Bismarck, North Dakota

10. Rapid City-Spearfish, South Dakota

And the cities with the most year-round particle pollution:

1. Fresno-Madera, California

2. Bakersfield, California

3. Visalia-Porterville-Hanford, California*

4. Modesto-Merced, California

5. Los Angeles-Long Beach, California

6. El Centro, California

7. San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland, California

8. Cincinnati; Wilmington, Kentucky; Maysville, Indiana

9. Pittsburgh; New Castle, Ohio; Weirton, West Virginia

10. Cleveland-Akron-Canton, Ohio

To see city rankings for short-term particle pollution and ozone pollution, check out the report

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the state in which Visalia, Porterville, and Hanford are located.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chipotle Says It's Getting Rid of GMOs. Here's the Problem.

| Tue Apr. 28, 2015 4:08 PM EDT

Chipotle announced this week that it will stop serving food made with genetically modified organisms. The company wants you to think the decision is "another step toward the visions we have of changing the way people think about and eat fast food," apparently because GMOs are regarded with at best suspicion and at worst total revulsion by lots of Americans.

There's data to support that notion: A Pew poll released earlier this year found that less than 40 percent of Americans think GMOs are safe to eat.

Here's the thing, though: GMOs are totally safe to eat. Eighty-eight percent of the scientists in that same poll agreed. As longtime environmentalist Mark Lynas pointed out in the New York Times recently, the level of scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs is comparable to the scientific consensus on climate change, which is to say that the disagreement camp is a rapidly diminishing minority. Lynas also made the equally valid point that so-called "improved" seeds have a pretty remarkable track record in improving crop yields in developing countries, which translates to a direct win for local economies and food security. (Although there is evidence that widespread GMO use can lead to an increased reliance on pesticides.)

But there's an even more important reason why Chipotle's announcement is little more than self-congratulatory PR, even if you think that GMOs are the devil. As former MoJo-er Sarah Zhang pointed out at Gizmodo:

For the past couple of years, Chipotle has been getting its suppliers to get rid of GM corn and soybean. Today’s "GMO-free" announcement comes as Chipotle has switched over to non-GMO corn and soybean oil, but it still serves chicken and pork from animals raised on GMO feed. (Its beef comes from pasture-fed cows.) A good chunk of the GM corn and soybeans grown in America actually goes to feed livestock, so a truly principled stance against GMOs should cut out meat from GM-fed animals, too.

The same caveat applies to soda, which is also made mostly from corn.

This Stat Will Make Deforestation Hit Home

| Fri Apr. 24, 2015 4:33 PM EDT
Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Okay, so deforestation is sad, and it's Arbor Day so we should be extra sad about it. But there are so many things to be sad about, right? Well maybe this stat, from a study that came out last month, will make the loss of the world's forests sink in for you:

More than 70 percent of the worlds's forests are within 1 kilometer of a forest edge. Thus, most forests are well within the range where human activities, altered microclimate and nonforest species may influence and degrade forest ecosystems.

That's right, we've arrived at the point where the majority of the forest in the world is just a short walk from the stuff humans have built. If you need that in graph form, here you go:

Science Advances

According to the study, which was published in the journal Science Advances, the largest remaining contiguous forests are in the Amazon and the Congo River Basin. The study also synthesized past forest fragmentation research and found that breaking up habitats to this degree has reduced biodiversity by as much as 75 percent in some areas.

Happy Arbor Day…

This Is Why You Crave Sugar When You're Stressed Out

| Thu Apr. 23, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Here's something that won't come as a surprise to anyone who has ever devoured a pint of Rocky Road after a miserable day at work: Researchers at the University of California-Davis recently found that 80 percent of people report eating more sweets when they are stressed. Their new study, published in the the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, offers a possible explanation.

Sugar, the researchers found, can diminish physiological responses normally produced in the brain and body during stressful situations. With stress levels on the rise, this could explain why more people are reaching for sweets.

The three-phase study involved 19 women, ages 18 to 40, who spent three days on a low-sugar diet at the research facility. Saliva samples and MRIs were taken and stress was induced through timed math tests. After being discharged, over the course of 12 days, the women consumed sweetened drinks three times a day. Half had beverages sweetened with the artificial sweetener aspartame, while the rest had drinks sweetened with real sucrose. This phase was followed by an additional three-day stint at the facility during which MRIs and saliva samples were taken again.

After the 12-day period, the group that had sucrose-sweetened beverages showed higher activity in the left hippocampus (an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory that is sensitive to chronic stress) and significantly reduced levels of cortisol (the hormone released in response to stress) compared to those who had artificially sweetened beverages.

While this study was one of the first to show that sugar can reduce stress responses in humans, it followed up on previous studies that found similar conclusions in animal subjects. The researchers noted the need for future research—especially on whether long-term sugar consumption has the same effect.

"The concern is psychological or emotional stress could trigger the habitual overconsumption of sugar," lead author Kevin D. Laugero told Science Daily. Not exactly great news for those of us who enjoy eating our feelings.

Obama Just Called Out Florida's Climate Deniers in Their Own Backyard

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 4:05 PM EDT
Obama speaking this afternoon at Everglades National Park

President Barack Obama just marked Earth Day with a speech on climate change, given from a podium in Florida's Everglades National Park. The choice of venue was appropriate from an environmental perspective—the Everglades is already acutely feeling the impacts of sea level rise—but it was also telling from a political standpoint. Although our swampiest national park has a long history of bipartisan support, it's located in a state that has recently produced some of the most absurdist climate denial in recent memory—and Obama didn't forget to mention it.

Florida is home not just to Sen. Marco Rubio, a GOP presidential contender who maintains that humans can't affect the climate, but also to Gov. Rick Scott, who landed in headlines last month after apparently barring state employees from talking about climate change.

"Climate change can no longer be denied," Obama said today. "It can't be edited out. It can't be omitted from the conversation…Simply refusing to say the words 'climate change' doesn't mean climate change isn't happening."

Obama also took a jab at Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) for bringing a snowball onto the Senate floor. "If you have a coming storm, you don't stick your head in the sand," he said. "You prepare for the storm."

You can watch the full speech below (starts at 48:00):

Scott Walker Celebrates Earth Day by Proposing To Fire 57 Environmental Agency Employees

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

Happy Earth Day! Today is a day we can all band together and share our love for this beautiful planet—or at least drown our sorrows about climate change with nerdy themed cocktails. Later today, President Barack Obama will mark the occasion with a climate-focused speech in the Florida Everglades. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, had a different idea: Fire a big chunk of the state's environmental staff.

From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

Fifty-seven employees of the state Department of Natural Resources began receiving formal notices this week that they might face layoff as part of Gov. Scott Walker's budget for the next two fiscal years…

The DNR's scientific staff conducts research on matters ranging from estimating the size of the state's deer herd to to studying the effects of aquatic invasive species. Work is paid for with state and federal funds…

All told, Walker's budget would cut 66 positions from the DNR. Of this, more than 25% would come from the science group. Cosh said a smaller number of employees received notices than the 66 positions in the budget because some positions targeted for cuts are vacant.

It's no secret that a signature tactic in Walker's controversial environmental record has been to degrade the DNR, which in addition to carrying out research is tasked with regulating the state's mining industries. Still, the timing of this particular announcement is striking. I guess no one marked Earth Day on Walker's calendar.

Neither Walker's office nor DNR immediately returned requests for comment.

As consolation for this depressing news, here's is a webcam of pandas at the San Diego Zoo.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

How Californians Screwed Drought-Plagued California

| Wed Apr. 22, 2015 12:25 PM EDT
The state's water hogs and Silicon Valley's tech shuttles benefit from the same tax exclusion.

Solving California's water crisis got a lot harder on Monday when a state appeals court struck down steeply tiered water rates in the city of San Juan Capistrano. Like many other California cities, this affluent Orange County town encourages conservation by charging customers who use small amounts of water a lower rate per gallon than customers who use larger amounts. The court ruled that the practice conflicts with Proposition 218, a ballot measure that, among other things, bars governments from charging more for a service than it costs to provide it.

In the process of thwarting taxation without voter approval, Prop. 218 stops state and local governments from addressing urgent problems, such as drought.

The drought isn't the only way Prop. 218 is hamstringing California cities. Early last year, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency announced a controversial pilot program that would allow Google buses and other tech shuttles to use public bus stops for $1 a stop. Activists, who saw the shuttles as symbols of inequality and out-of-control gentrification, wanted the agency to charge Google much more than that and use the profits to subsidize the city's chronically underfunded public transit system. But MTA officials argued that their hands were tied: Prop. 218 prevented them from charging more than the estimated $1.5 million cost of administering the program.

Prop. 218, the "Right to Vote on Taxes Act," was a constitutional amendment drafted in 1996 by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group that led the tax revolt that swept California in the 1970s and eventually helped elect President Ronald Reagan. After 1978, when the group's signature initiative, Prop. 13, began severely limiting property tax increases, cities and counties moved to plug their budgetary holes with other types of taxes and fees. Prop 218 was designed to constrain those workarounds by requiring that any new tax be approved by voters or affected property owners. For the purposes of the act, taxes included any fees from which a government derived a profit.

Prop. 218 has been widely criticized for making it harder for cities to raise revenues, but the recent cases with water rates and tech shuttles point to another issue: the way the initiative prevents state and local governments from addressing urgent social and environmental problems. It's worth remembering that withdrawing water from California's dwindling reservoirs to feed verdant lawns is in itself a tax of sorts, and Mother Nature may not wait until the next election to revoke our ability to levy it.

17 Everyday Items That Use a Whole Lot of Water

| Tue Apr. 21, 2015 6:45 AM EDT

If you live in the West, particularly in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has ordered a 25 percent mandatory reduction in household water use, you may have started taking shorter showers. Perhaps a spiky array of cacti now dwells where your lawn used to be. Maybe you've even stopped drinking almond milk.

But even those of us who don't live in California are thinking more about how much water our lifestyles require—after all, much of the country is now in drought, and climate models project that dry spells will become more and more common all over the world in the years to come. A few years back, we crunched the numbers on the water footprints of a few common items:

 

Icon credits (via Noun Project): Microchip—Rabee Balakrishnan; Apple—Ava Rowell; Beer—Fabian Sanabria; Wine—Philippe Berthelon Bravo; Can—Blaise Sewell; Coffee—Okan Benn; OJ—Blaise Sewell; Diaper—Isabel Foo; Chicken—Ana Maria Lora Macias; Cheese—Elliott Snyder; Hamburger—Pei Wen (Winnie) Kwang; T-shirt—Sergi Delgado; Paper—Evan Udelsman; Beef—Jon Testa; Jeans—Pranav Mote;

McDonald's Franchisees: "We Will Continue to Fall and Fail"

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 7:11 PM EDT

McDonald's opened its first franchise in Des Plaines, Ill., 60 years ago today, but its franchisees aren't exactly celebrating.

"The future looks very bleak. I'm selling my McDonald's stock," one operator wrote in response to a recent survey of McDonald's franchises across the country, as quoted by Business Insider. "The morale of franchisees is at its lowest level ever."

"McDonalds' system is broken," wrote one franchisee.

"McDonalds' system is broken," another wrote, according to MarketWatch. "We will continue to fall and fail."

Is the fast-food giant having a mid-life crisis?

McDonald's has some 3,000 franchises in the United States, and 32 of them—representing 215 restaurants—took part in the latest survey by Wall Street analyst Mark Kalinowski of Janney Capital Markets. Many of them complained about poor business this year and blamed corporate executives. When asked to assess their six-month business outlook on a scale of 1 to 5, they responded grimly with an average of 1.81. Maybe that's because, according to the survey, same-store sales for franchises declined 3.7 percent in March and 4 percent in February.

Only three of the 32 franchisees said they had a "good" relationship with their franchisor, while about half described their relationship as "poor." The average score for this question was 1.48 out of 5, the lowest score since Kalinowski first started surveying the franchisees more than a decade ago.

Reuters reported that a McDonald's spokesperson responded to the survey by noting the poll size and saying that the company appreciates feedback from franchisees and has a "solid working relationship with them."

Last month, McDonald's executives invited franchisees to a "Turnaround Summit" in Las Vegas, to address its US sales decline. But the get-together didn't seem to boost anyone's spirits. "The Turnaround Summit was a farce," one franchisee wrote in the survey, as quoted by AdAge. "McDonald's Corp. has panicked and jumped the shark." Another added, "McDonald's management does not know what we want to be."

Some franchise operators slammed McDonalds' decision to raise pay by giving employees at company-owned stores $1 an hour above minimum wage. "We will be expected to do the same," one wrote, according to Nation's Restaurant News. "Watch for $5 Big Macs, etc. and Extra Value Meals in the $8 to $10 range."

Next week, McDonald's is set to report its first-quarter earnings.

These Popular Clothing Brands Are Cleaning Up Their Chinese Factories

| Wed Apr. 15, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

It's well known that the outsourcing of clothing manufacturing to countries with low wages and weak regulations has led to exploitative labor conditions. But many foreign apparel factories also create environmental problems. The industrial processes used to make our jeans and sweatshirts require loads of water, dirty energy, and chemicals, which often get dumped into the rivers and air surrounding factories in developing countries. Almost 20 percent of the world's industrial water pollution comes from the textile industry, and China's textile factories, which produce half of the clothes bought in the United States, emit 3 billion tons of soot a year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

But a few basic (and often profitable) changes in a factory's manufacturing process can go a long way in cutting down pollution. That's the takeaway from Clean by Design, a new alliance between NRDC, major clothing brands—including Target, Levi's, Gap, and H&M—and Chinese textile manufacturing experts.

Starting in 2013, 33 mills in the cities of Guangzhou and Shaoxing participated in a pilot program that focused on improving efficiency and reducing the environmental impact of producing textiles. The results, released in a report today, are impressive. 

The 33 mills reduced coal consumption by 61,000 tons and chemical consumption by 400 tons. They saved 36 million kilowatts of electricity and 3 million tons of water (the production of one tee shirt takes about 700 gallons, or 90 pounds, of water). While mills often needed to invest in capital up front, they saw an average of $440,000 in savings per mill—a total of $14.7 million—mostly returned to them within a year.

How did they accomplish all this? Below are some of the measures that were implemented:

  • Upgrading metering systems to monitor water, steam, and electricity use (and identify waste)

  • Implementing condensation collection during the steam-heavy dying process

  • Increasing water reuse after cooling and rinsing (some clothes get rinsed as many as 8 times; the final rinses often leave behind clean water)

  • Investing in equipment for recovering heat from hot water used for dying and rinsing, and from machines

  • Stopping up steam and compressed air leakage to increase energy efficiency

  • Improving insulation on pipes, boilers, drying cylinders, dye vats, and steam valves to prevent wasted energy