Blue Marble

Toxic Foraged Fish for Dinner in NYC

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 5:55 PM EDT

New York City's Daily News reports that people who eat the fish they catch in the city's polluted waterways could be ingesting a smorgasbord of toxins, including mercury and PCBs. According to the story, health officials haven't tested the city's fish in a decade, so the paper decided to do send samples to a lab in Long Island. The results:

The News found the highest levels of mercury and PCBs in a striped bass caught off Gantry Plaza. The fish are highly prized among local fishermen for their size and flavor.

Bluefish samples from the Gowanus Harbor off Red Hook, Brooklyn, also had unsafe levels, tests conducted by Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Suffolk County showed.

A winter flounder caught off Hunts Point in the Bronx was slightly cleaner, with elevated levels of mercury but lower amounts of PCBs.

Hard times mean that a free meal is hard to pass up—fishermen at one pier told the Daily News that subsistence fishing has doubled in the past year. All the more troubling, then, that the polluted waters usually aren't marked: Health advisories about local fish's toxicity are seldom posted, even in the city's most popular fishing spots.

Of course the city should post the advisories, but if it does, that won't necessarily solve the problem. Eating potentially toxic fish vs. going hungry? Talk about a tough choice.

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The Real Stink Behind Sewage Sludge & the White House Garden

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

 Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling Huffington Posters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?

The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.

The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.

The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.

This Week In Frog: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

| Fri Jul. 3, 2009 9:27 AM EDT

The Good

Thanks to pesticides, invading bullfrogs, nonnative diseases, and the loss of wetlands, the northern leopard frog may warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act in 18 western states, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement that's scheduled for today.

The Bad

National Geographic reports that the "mating between the rare California tiger salamander and the introduced barred tiger salamander has created a monster." The combination of native and nonnative species seems to be the worst pairing since ligers. As a result of these new creatures, biodiversity is taking a major hit in the ponds of California's Salinas River Valley. The new superpredator grows larger than either of its parent species, so "its bigger mouth enables it to suck up a wide variety of amphibian prey." This spells certain trouble for frogs who have difficulty competing against larger salamanders.

The Ugly Salamander

Check out this National Geographic video that shows a bunch of new species that were recently observed in an isolated Ecuadorian forest, including the transparent glass frog and the E.T.-like "ugly salamander":


Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 3

| Fri Jul. 3, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Before you head for the beach, some science, environment, and health posts from our other blogs to kick off your holiday weekend:

Geeks' Green Dreams: Silicon Valley techies can't bankroll green energy on their own (much as they might like to). That's why we need creative incentives, and not just tax credits.

Healthcare Humdinger: If you're confused by the Congressional Budget Office's latest healthcare cost estimates, you're not alone.

Lies Your Sunscreen Tells You: SPF 100? All-day protection? Sweat-proof? Uh, not quite. Plus: Want to get enough vitamin D? Here's how, no tanning salon required.

Sunscreen: Still Shady

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 7:50 PM EDT

July 4th weekend beach time is upon us, and the FDA still hasn't finalized its rules about what sunscreen manufacturers can claim on sunscreen labels. The new regulations were proposed back in 2007, and two years later, they still haven't been published. That means sunscreen manufacturers are still getting away with exaggerated claims. ("All day protection!" "Sweat proof!" "SPF 100!" Sound familiar?) The Environmental Working Group recently posted its 2009 Sunscreen Guide, and it found that three out of five sunscreens on the market still either don't work as well as they claim to or contain potentially hazardous chemicals, or both. Not exactly what you want to hear right before your holiday weekend on the beach.

On the bright side: EWG found that this year, 70 percent of sunscreen products contain strong UVA filters, compared to just 29 percent in 2008. Another improvement: This year, 19 percent fewer sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a UV blocker that scientists suspect seeps into the skin and enters the bloodstream.

Still, it's awfully hard to tell from the labels which products are safe and effective. And that's bad news for those of us who don't want to spend our summer beach days dressed like the folks in the picture.

WRONG: Vegetarian diet 'weakens bones'

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 7:11 PM EDT

Why can't the media report science correctly? According to this AFP story: "People who live on vegetarian diets have slightly weaker bones than their meat-eating counterparts."

They could hardly misreport a scientific study more spectacularly. I mean, how hard is it to:


  • Assess the fact that differences in bone density (which the researcher himself deemed "clinically insignificant") did not lead to any increase in the number of bone fractures?

The Australian news reported the story somewhat more accurately.

But this headline and misleading story have been virulently misreported today. And what is the effect but to reinforce meat-eating habitats that are bad for the health of individuals and for the health of our world?


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New El Niño Making More Hurricanes

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 6:25 PM EDT

El Niño years typically produce fewer Atlantic hurricanes. But that seems to be changing. According to a report in this week's Science a new kind of El Niño is appearing, one birthed in the Central not Eastern Pacific. It's called El Niño Modoki, from the Japanese meaning: similar but different.

What's different about El Niño Modoki is that its Central Pacific warming is associated with a higher-than-average hurricane frequency and a greater potential for those storms to make landfall along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and Central America.

Why El Niño is changing is unclear. It could be part of a natural oscillation of El Niño (the data are sparse before the 1920s). Or it could be El Niño’s response to a warming atmosphere. Pacific trade winds appearing to be weakening, which might account for the warming of the tropical Pacific shifting westward.

The researchers are also currently investigating La Niña, the cooling of the surface waters in the Eastern and Central Pacific. In the past, La Nina was associated with a greater-than-average number of North Atlantic hurricanes. But La Nina seems to be changing its structure as well.

The latest ENSO quick look shows a possible El Niño developing sometime between now and the end of August based on elevated sea surface temperatures across both the Central and Eastern Pacific.

Eco-News Roundup Thursday July 2

| Thu Jul. 2, 2009 6:43 AM EDT

Environment, health, and energy-related stories from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday.

Baby Blues: Ex-McCain camp grumps about dealing with Palin's post-partum depression.

Dept. of TCB: Obama is doing what he has to to pass healthcare bill.

Thank You, Jesus: God tells Joe the Plumber NOT to run for Congress. For now.

Bill Breakdown: So, what's the Waxman-Markey bill going to do exactly?

Ugly American: Todd Stern will have to convince India and China to reduce emissions, not easy to do when our own come-lately climate bill barely passed.


Report: States Wasting Stimulus Funds on New Roads

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 7:45 PM EDT

A report released this week by two public interest groups found that states are on average using nearly a third of their stimulus transportation funds to build new roads while often ignoring a huge backlog of necessary street repairs and public transportation investments.

Produced by a transportation consulting firm for CalPIRG and Smart Growth America, the report paints a particularly ugly picture in California, which has spent more than 80 percent of its $2.6 billion in transportation stimulus money. Forty three percent of that money went to build new road projects, even as about $310 million in ready-to-go road and bridge repairs went unfunded.

Of course, California looks downright sane compared to Kentucky, where more than 38 percent of lane miles are in "poor" condition, a whopping 573 bridges are structurally deficient, and yet 88 percent of the state's $421 million in stimulus transportation money will go to build new roads. "If the state can't afford to maintain what it has now," the report asks, "how does it plan to maintain the new roads?"

Similarly, it's anyone's guess how states will maintain their ailing public transportation systems. A recent Department of Transportation report found that the nation's seven largest rail transportation agencies have a combined investment backlog of $50 billion.  Yet the stimulus earmarks only $8.4 billion to public transportation, leaving other stimulus funds to fill the gap. Even then, few states with those rail systems are dedicating much of this money towards sustaining them. New Jersey, Pennnsylvania, California, New York, and Illinois each allocate less than 5 percent of their discretionary transportation stimulus funds to public transit.

Ironically, prioritizing new roads over public transit projects undermines the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's goals to generate jobs, promote long-term economic growth, and create greener cities--all areas where transit is unbeatable.

It's not too late to change course. June 29th marked the deadline for states to commit at least 50 percent of the Act's $26.6 billion in transportation funds; here's hoping the next 50 percent will be spent more intelligently.

The Cell Phone Cancer Question, Again

| Wed Jul. 1, 2009 6:30 PM EDT

The debate over whether electromagnetic radiation from cell phones and other wireless technology causes cancer rages on. Yesterday, an advocacy group called the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy sent a letter to journalists and lawmakers urging them to "learn about the health consequences of microwave radiation exposure from cell phones, neighborhood antennas, wireless networks, wireless routers, DECT portable phones, and the potential health consequences of further chronic exposures from wireless broadband and new wireless utility technologies."

The folks behind this latest media blitz are some of the same ones who authored the controversial BioInitiative Report in 2007, which linked wireless radiation to cancer and a host of other health problems.* When I investigated the issue of whether cell phones cause brain cancer last spring, I was told by some BioInitiative authors that we'd finally have the answer in a few months, when the conclusive results from the multinational Interphone Study, the holy grail of cell phone health research, would finally be released.

But a year later, the results still haven't been released. Why not?