Blue Marble

The Big Source of Pollution That No One Talks About

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

When most of us think about air pollution, we imagine smog emanating from cars, trucks, and power plants. But oceangoing ships are also a major source of pollution around the world, and according to a new study, they're emitting toxic chemicals that can cause major health problems.

One study estimated that 60,000 deaths every year are related to particulate matter emissions from marine shipping.

A team of German researchers from the University of Rostock has found that emissions from ships can be even more dangerous than emissions from cars and trucks, causing damage to cells in our bodies that can lead to serious diseases like lung cancer, heart problems, and diabetes. In a study published by the Public Library of Science earlier this month, the researchers said ship engines that burn heavy fuel oil, the cheapest and most common kind of ship fuel, emit heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and carcinogenic fine particles.

These substances have been connected with inflammation, the body's natural response to pathogens that, over time, can lead to a wide range of chronic diseases. Exposure to pollution from heavy fuel oil can also encourage oxidative stress, a state in which the body is not able to fully counteract or detoxify the harmful presence of free radicals, and which can lead to everything from neurodegenerative diseases to cancer and gene mutations. Unfortunately, this cheap, dirty fuel is not the only culprit: The researchers also found that even the burning of diesel fuel, generally seen as a cleaner source of power, emits toxins that can change basic cellular functions in the body like energy and protein metabolism.

Exposure to shipping pollution takes a huge toll globally. In 2007, one study estimated that 60,000 deaths every year are related to particulate matter emissions from marine shipping, with most deaths occurring near coastlines in Europe, East Asia, and South Asia. Still, the United States isn't exactly winning medals for clean ports, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a 2004 report, the environmental advocacy group lamented that marine ports were among the country's most poorly regulated sources of pollution, with the Port of Los Angeles emitting far more smog-forming pollutants than all the power plants in the Southern California region combined.

Since then, ports have taken some steps to curb emissions, in part by allowing ships to plug in to onshore power sources, rather than idling their engines. But overall, pollution regulations in the United States have focused more strongly on cleaning up our roads. The German researchers suggested that it may be time to re-evaluate our strategy. "Due to the substantial contribution of ship emissions to global pollution, ship emissions are the next logical target for improving air quality worldwide, particularly in coastal regions and harbour cities," they wrote.

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The American Medical Association Just Voted to End Personal Vaccination Exemptions

| Tue Jun. 9, 2015 11:10 AM EDT

The American Medical Association, the country's largest association of physicians, is weighing in on the vaccination debate by supporting the end of personal vaccination exemptions on both the state and federal levels.

At the group's annual meeting in Chicago on Monday, members voted to mobilize the organization in order to persuade state legislatures to eliminate nonmedical reasons for exemption, such as religion, which are used to dodge crucial immunizations against diseases such as measles and whooping cough.

"As evident from the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland, protecting community health in today’s mobile society requires that policymakers not permit individuals from opting out of immunization solely as a matter of personal preference or convenience," said board member Dr. Patrice Harris, according to Forbes. "When people are immunized they also help prevent the spread of disease to others."

Last December, 117 people who had visited Disneyland in Orange County, California were infected with the highly contagious disease. Other states also reported outbreaks and an old debate about the safety of vaccines was revived.

CDC

At the time, the right to personal exemptions quickly became a lightening rod of controversy that even extended to potential presidential candidates who were asked for their position in the vaccine debate. Senator Rand Paul said vaccinations should be voluntary and suggested immunization could even lead to "profound mental disorders." Hillary Clinton took a firmer stance than she had in previous years by supporting vaccinations outright.

Although the debate has died down in recent months on the national scale, on the state level vaccination remains a contentious issue. Today in California, where the measles outbreak began, the state's assembly will vote on a bill to end personal waivers.

"It's such a no brainer. You’re protecting the kid next to you," said AMA member Dr. James Felsen. 

The 4 Excuses People Use to Justify Eating Meat

| Mon Jun. 8, 2015 3:21 PM EDT

There are plenty of reasons to stop eating meat: Fears over growing numbers of terrifying superbugs that have sprung out of our antibiotic-ridden meat supply, objections to the horrifying conditions factory-farmed animals are subjected to, and concerns over health risks posed by meat consumption (for both people and the planet)—to name just a few.

Around 90 percent of people who eat meat say they do so for one or more of four reasons: It's natural, necessary, normal, and nice.

Given all this, meat eaters increasingly find themselves having to defend their diet. Now, a team of international researchers has identified the four most common excuses they use. According to a report published last month in the behavior nutrition journal, Appetite, around 90 percent of people who eat meat use these "four Ns" to justify their diets:

  1. It's natural. People have always eaten meat. Why stop now?
  2. It's necessary. Without meat, it's impossible to get enough protein and other nutrients.
  3. It's normal. Almost everyone eats meat, and I don't want to be different.
  4. It's nice. Meat is delicious!

The researchers conducted six separate studies to find out more about how the four Ns play a role in helping meat-eaters rationalize their diet and how their beliefs can tell us more about the behaviors that drive them.

They found that those who endorsed the four Ns the most strongly cared about fewer species of animals, were less likely to consider the moral implications of their food choices, and also showed less concern for issues not related to diet, like social inequality. The studies also showed that four-N advocates experience less guilt than responders who showed ambivalence—and that the more someone believes in the four Ns, the less willing he or she is to cut back on meat consumption in the future.

The authors point out that insights into these attitudes reveal more than just the "why" behind meat consumption; they highlight where there might be opportunities to change beliefs—and ultimately behaviors. Though researchers found that "necessary" and "nice" were the most strongly voiced defenses and might be most difficult to overturn, Americans are eating much less meat than they used to, and cultural movements like Meatless Monday have made it clear that people can at least be convinced to cut back. Plus it doesn't hurt that vegetarian fare has come a long way in the tastiness department.

17 Years After Viagra, the Female Viagra May Finally Be Here

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 7:31 PM EDT
Flibanserin, a drug to treat low sexual desire in women.

A contentious effort to introduce a sex-drive drug for women may be nearing a climax. After rejecting "the pink Viagra" (AKA flibanserin) twice in the past five years, a Federal Drug Administration advisory committee voted today that the the pill should be approved if measures are taken to reduce its potential side effects, such as low blood pressure and fainting.

The nonhormonal drug, developed by Sprout Pharmaceutical, is meant to be taken nightly. The company says it works by altering chemicals in the brain to increase a woman's sexual desire (unlike Viagra, which increases blood flow to certain parts of the body). Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Women who took the drug in trials reported no more than one additional "sexually satisfying event" per month than women who received a placebo.

Today's vote comes 17 years after the FDA approved Viagra, the incredibly profitable erectile dysfunction treatment. Since then, more than two dozen prescription drugs have been approved to assist with male sexual performance, but none for women.

Even the Score, a group backed by the pharmaceutical companies that developed flibanserin, says that women also suffer from sexual dysfunction and that the unwillingness to develop and approve drugs to treat it is a matter of bias. They called today's vote a victory for gender equality. "Women with Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder deserve the safety and peace of mind that comes with access to FDA-approved medical treatment options, and today we write a new chapter in the fight for equity in sexual health," Even the Score said in a statement.

But others believe that potentially profitable drugs for a dubious disorder are being pushed with little proven effectiveness. "I don't think there is anything sexist about denying approval for drugs that don't have an adequate risk-to-benefit ratio," Thea Cacchioni, a professor of women's studies at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, told the New York Times. According to Forbes, $50 million in private investment rest on flibanserin's approval.

The FDA is expected to come to a final decision on the drug in August.

EPA: Fracking Doesn't Pose "Widespread, Systemic" Danger to Drinking Water

| Thu Jun. 4, 2015 1:02 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency today released a long-awaited draft report on the impact of fracking on drinking water supplies. The analysis, which drew on peer-reviewed studies as well as state and federal databases, found that activities associated with fracking do "have the potential to impact drinking water resources." But it concluded that in the United States, these impacts have been few and far between.

The report identifies several possible areas of concern, including: "water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability; spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of water."

However, the report says, "We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

The report considered not only the hydraulic fracturing action itself, but all of the water-related steps necessary to drill, from acquiring water to disposing of it. Here's an illustration from the report:

EPA

The report, which the Obama administration had hoped would provide a definitive answer to a core question about the controversial drilling technique, has been five years in the making. During that time, the EPA has faced numerous battles with the oil and gas industry to procure necessary data. Even before the report was released, some scientists voiced skepticism about its findings because of gaps in the data regarding what types of chemicals were present in water supplies prior to fracking activities.

As Inside Climate News explains:

For the study's findings to be definitive, the EPA needed prospective, or baseline, studies. Scientists consider prospective water studies essential because they provide chemical snapshots of water immediately before and after fracking and then for a year or two afterward. This would be the most reliable way to determine whether oil and gas development contaminates surface water and nearby aquifers, and the findings could highlight industry practices that protect water. In other studies that found toxic chemicals or hydrocarbons in water wells, the industry argued that the substances were present before oil and gas development began.  

Prospective studies were included in the EPA project's final plan in 2010 and were still described as a possibility in a December 2012 progress report to Congress. But the EPA couldn't legally force cooperation by oil and gas companies, almost all of which refused when the agency tried to persuade them.

Well, Well, Well, Look Who Just Endorsed a Bold Fix For Climate Change

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 5:38 PM EDT
Shell's Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle last month. The company now supports carbon pricing but hasn't changed plans to drill for oil.

Oil companies are pretty much the last ally you'd think of when it comes to advancing big-picture solutions to climate change. These are the companies, after all, whose product is responsible for causing a significant amount of climate change in the first place—and pretty much every proposed fix for global warming necessarily involves burning less oil.

So it came as a bit of a surprise Monday when six of the leading European oil companies, including BP and Shell, unveiled a letter addressed to the United Nations climate chief calling for a price on carbon emissions (read the full letter below).

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of ongoing UN-led international climate negotiations, the letter said. This week representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for a summit in Paris this winter where they hope to produce a powerful global accord on fighting climate change. The letter called on the world's governments to create new national carbon markets where they don't currently exist (like most of the United States, for example), and to eventually link those markets internationally.

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of global climate talks, a letter from several European oil companies said.

As Bloomberg Business pointed out, the letter is "unprecedented," in that it's the first time a group of major oil companies have banded together to advocate for a serious climate change policy. It was welcomed by the UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, who said that the "oil and gas industry must be a major part of the solution to climate change."

Most environmental economists and policy wonks agree that making companies pay for their carbon pollution—whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade system—is a fundamental step for any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that making carbon pollution expensive will drive big polluters to clean up. Policies like this are already gathering steam across the globe, from Canada to China. (California and a few Northeast states have regional carbon markets, but a national carbon price is still a non-starter in the US Congress.) Recently, Australia demonstrated just how effective carbon pricing can be, in a counterintuitive way: Carbon emissions dropped immediately after the country implemented a carbon tax, then jumped right back up when the tax was repealed.

If Monday's letter is any clue, oil companies are reading the writing on the wall, and they know that one way or another, it's time to start planning for a future when carbon pollution is more expensive and tightly regulated. Well, some oil companies: Conspicuously absent from the letter are any US oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all the signatories are European. In fact, just last week Exxon chief Rex Tillerson implicitly blasted his European peers for cozying up to the UN on climate issues, saying his company wouldn't "fake it" on climate change and that investing in renewable energy is tantamount to "losing money on purpose."

The head of French oil giant Total addressed the cross-Atlantic schism in comments to Reuters, saying that the European companies were set on throwing their weight behind carbon pricing "without necessarily waiting for an American to come on board."

Although carbon pricing "obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," the letter says, the companies would prefer consistency and predictability over the patchwork of policies that exists now. In other words, it's easier to justify and plan investments in lower-carbon projects, such as replacing coal with natural gas, when carbon prices are stable and "even-handed," the letter said. At the same time, these companies have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to address how they'll stay profitable in the future, as restrictions on carbon emissions are tightened.

To that end, a few of the signatories already have their own internal "shadow" carbon price, where investment options are calculated with a hypothetical carbon price added in, as a way of anticipating future policies.

Still, progressive-sounding statements notwithstanding, oil companies are oil companies, and the letter gives no indication that any of them have plans to replace fossil fuels as their primary product. Shell, for one, is just weeks away from a new foray into offshore drilling in the Arctic. And according to Bloomberg, the European companies are no better than their American counterparts in terms of their actual carbon footprint. So it remains to be seen how committed the companies will be to supporting sweeping changes to the global energy system, or if letters like this are just a clever way to stay relevant as the international climate talks forge ahead. Either way, the paradox of a corporation calling for a carbon price while still pursuing fossil fuel extraction is just more evidence that the free market won't fix climate change voluntarily—governments have to create new policies, like an international carbon price, that energy companies can't evade.

Here's the letter:

 

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San Francisco Moves to Require Health Warnings on Soda Ads

| Mon Jun. 1, 2015 6:36 PM EDT

Sugar has invaded just about every part of our diet (Americans consume an estimated five times the amount of added sugar recommended by the World Health Organization), and it's making us sick. Too much added sugar can lead to heart disease and myriad other health issues, and research suggests sugar in liquid form is worst of all for you.

CalBev, the trade group representing California's nonalcoholic beverage industry, called the proposals "anti-consumer choice."

That's why today San Francisco lawmakers discussed requiring soda advertisements to include a health warning. It would read, "WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco."

Other proposed ordinances would prohibit the advertising of sugar-sweetened drinks on city property and ban their purchase with city funds or grants. These measures would be the first of their kind taken by an American city.

As expected, the sugar industry is not happy about them. Last year, it spent more than $10 million campaigning against a San Francisco ballot measure to tax sugary beverages, and, according to the San Jose Mercury News, industry groups are prepared to fight these ordinances, as well.

CalBev, the trade group representing California's nonalcoholic beverage industry, called the proposals "anti-consumer choice" and said the warnings would not improve health and instead mislead and confuse consumers.

San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen, who introduced the soda ordinances along with fellow supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, has a different perspective. "Soda companies are spending billions of dollars every year to target low-income and minority communities, which also happen to be some of the communities with the highest risks of Type II diabetes," she said in a statement. "This ban on soda advertising will help bridge this existing health inequity."

Wiener added, "These health warning labels will give people the information they need to make informed choices about how these sodas are impacting their lives and the lives of people in their community."

A hearing was held for the ordinances earlier today. Next, they will be brought to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a vote.

Obama's Plan to Save the Monarch Butterflies' Epic Migration

| Sat May 23, 2015 3:52 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly.

Earlier this week, amid negotiating major trade deals and joining Twitter, Obama put forth a major infrastructure project: a highway for monarch butterflies.

That's right, monarch butterflies. The pollinators are crucial to the health of our ecosystems but, like bees, their populations have seen startling drops. Some groups are even calling for their protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration wants to do something about it as part of its strategy to protect pollinating insects, but that turns out to be a tricky task given the monarch's complex life cycle.

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies complete a 2,000-mile migration circuit from Mexico to the border of the United States and Canada that is so epic it has inspired poetry, a novel and documentary after documentary.

The whole process revolves around the butterflies' favorite plant, milkweed, on whose leaves they lay eggs. Milkweed grows in the northern United States and southern Canada, so each spring they migrate north from Mexico (a process that requires multiple generations), resting along the way on trees like this.

Monarch butterflies in trees
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Monarch butterflies on branch
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The generation that arrives up north has just enough energy to lay eggs on milkweed leaves before dying themselves. The new generation, bolstered by the milkweed, then grows up with the strength to make make the autumn trip back to Mexico before the cold, continuing the cycle.

Monarch butterflies
Noradoa/Shutterstock

But a mixture of climate change, development, and herbicide use has wiped out> the milkweed-hungry monarchs. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that nearly one billion butterflies have died since 1990, a 90 percent population decline.

Enter Obama. As part of his "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators," his administration has introduced a plan to restore the monarch butterflies' habitat and increase their population by 225 million. The centerpiece of the plan is a "flyway" along Interstate 35, which stretches from Texas to Minnesota. The plan calls for turning federally owned land along the interstate corridor into milkweed refuges for the butterflies.

Will it work? Many don't think it's enough, including Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The goal the strategy sets for the monarch butterfly migration is far too low for the population to be resilient," she said in an email adding more protection and a ban of harmful pesticides are needed to save them.

One source of hope for the insect is its beauty. No one wants to see these iconic butterflies go away.

monarch butterfly
Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock
monarch butterfly
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

 

School Lunches Just Got Way Better in These 6 Cities (and It's Not the Food)

| Thu May 21, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A school lunch served on a foam polystyrene tray.

School lunches may be healthier than when you were a kid, but the wasteful and polluting materials that cafeterias serve them on have actually gotten worse. In an effort to save on labor and equipment costs, many schools switched from washable trays to disposable foam ones over the past couple of decades. But this trend is now beginning to change.

The school districts of six major cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Orlando— announced today that they will stop using polystyrene foam trays, and begin serving lunch on compostable plates.

The Urban School Food Alliance, which counts the country's largest school districts among its members, coordinated the change after developing an affordable compostable plate made from recycled newspaper that costs just a penny more than its foam counterpart.

"Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms," said Mark Izeman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which partners with the Alliance.

This shift to compostable plates by more than 4,000 schools will save an estimated 225 million petroleum-based plastic trays from going into landfill each year.

What's next? The Alliance hopes to introduce compostable cutlery by next school year.

 

The 85-Year-Old Nun Who Went to Prison for Embarrassing the Feds Is Finally Free

| Tue May 19, 2015 4:17 PM EDT
Sister Megan Rice

Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old activist nun who two years ago humiliated government officials by penetrating and vandalizing a supposedly ultra-high-security uranium storage facility, has finally been released from prison. A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the 2013 sabotage convictions of Rice and two fellow anti-nuclear activists, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 59, ruling that that their actions—breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 National Security Complex and spreading blood on a uranium storage bunker—did not harm national security.

Rice's case has become the subject of intense media scrutiny, including a recent New Yorker profile by Eric Schlosser, whose latest book exposed gaping flaws in America's nuclear weapons program. The activists now await re-sentencing on a lesser charge of damaging federal property. The punishment is expected to be less than the two years they've already spent in federal prison.

Speaking with Rice over the phone this afternoon, I asked her how it feels to be free. "Not that much different, because none of us is free," she said, "and it looks like we are going to go on being un-free for as long as there is a nuclear weapon waiting."

Asked on Democracy Now this morning about her experience in federal prison, Rice gave a response worthy of Sister Jane Ingalls, a character from the Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black, who was clearly inspired by Rice. "They are the ones who are the wisest in this country," she said of her fellow inmates. "They know what is really happening. They are the fallout of nuclear weapons production."

Skip to the 33-minute mark to watch the interview: