Blue Marble

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, June 17

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 6:45 AM EDT

Stories on health, the environment, and science from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday:

Pay more, get less: Only about 1/5 of charter schools perform better than public schools.

Death and taxes: Musings on the taxes necessary for universal healthcare.

Grassley's tweets: A translation of tweets by 75-year-old senator Chuck Grassley.

Palin's pain: While Palin is complaining, real women are actually being raped in Africa.

Obama's 1st climate report: Press nearly wets itself in excitement.

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Psoriasis Linked To Other Diseases

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 6:05 PM EDT

My roommate Mike has psoriasis, which, according to WebMD, is "a reddish, scaly rash often located over the surfaces of the elbows, knees, scalp, and around or in the ears, navel, genitals or buttocks." Luckily, his case is mild (it's only on his elbows), and you can't really notice it unless he's playing basketball. But after reading about a new study that links psoriasis to heart disease and other serious health problems, I'm worried about him.

Yesterday, Forbes reported that "people with psoriasis face an increased risk of major cardiovascular disease and death." The research they discuss, which included data from a Veterans Administration medical facility study, compared 3,236 people suffering from the skin disease to 2,500 psoriasis-free individuals and found a 78 percent higher incidence of heart disease, a 70 percent higher incidence of stroke and a 98 percent higher incidence of peripheral arterial disease (blockage of arteries in the legs) in the psoriasis group."

Without trying to sound preachy, I hope that those of you out there with psoriasis take these new findings as a wake-up call to stop partaking in activities that will increase your risk of heart disease or stroke, because you are likely already more genetically predisposed to these problems. Mike and I have decided to boycott red meat for a while and we plan to choose workouts over continuing our Woody Allen marathon.

Who's Thinner: Owners or Renters?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 2:31 PM EDT

A new study from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School finds that women homeowners are an average of 12 pounds heavier than renters. They're also more aggravated and spend less time socializing.

Thing is, it's hard to tell why. Figuring it out, the article notes, presents a chicken-and-egg type problem, since two lines of homeowner reasoning are possible:

a) Now that I've gone and bought a house, I may as well make owning my house worthwhile by maxing and relaxing in it as much as humanly possible.

b) I really like maxing and relaxing. Much more than, say, going for a walk with my friends. Gosh, it'd be great to have my very own M&R temple.

Previous studies have shown that homeowners are happier than renters, but they didn't control for external factors, like whether or not the subjects have kids. This study did.

Have you recently switched from renting to owning or vice versa? What's it like?

HT @aarieff.

Burbank Residents: Disney's Dumping Made Us Sick

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

Last week, we learned that residents of Burbank, California, are suing Walt Disney Co. for allegedly dumping carcinogenic chemicals in a local stream. Now, the Glendale News Press reports, they're saying said chemicals caused both people and animals to become sick. Troubling, but so far it doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of epidemiological studies: 

Standing at the intersection of Parkside Avenue and Parish Place, Panuska gestured down several neighboring streets, pointing out the homes whose residents she said were diagnosed with various cancers, and listing off dozens of cases where horses, dogs and cats came down with various maladies...

On Beachwood Drive, plaintiff Dennis Weisenbaugh reflected on the life of his office manager, Gene Montoya, who two years ago died of liver failure after eight years of working eight-hour days from his home office.

Three of Weisenbaugh’s horses were diagnosed with diseases similar to laminitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, and had to be put down.

It's awfully hard to prove a causal relationship between toxic chemicals and a handful of illnesses in people and pets, and that ambiguity will certainly work in Disney's favor. The company still hasn't said much on the issue, other than to point out that a 2006 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that chromium levels in the community weren't problematic. It'll be interesting to see whether the EPA agrees.


Climate Change Already Hammering the US

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

No matter what George Will says—extreme weather, drought, heavy rainfall, and increasing temperatures are already fact of life in many parts of the US thanks to human-induced global warming. Changes like these will increase in intensity from here on.

That's according to Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, a 190-page report two years in the making, issued today, product of the US Global Change Research Program, including NOAA and 12 other US government science agencies, major universities, and research institutes. Some of the findings from the Midwest alone:

  • Average temperatures have risen in the Midwest in recent decades, especially in winter
  • The growing season is one week longer
  • Heavy downpours are twice as frequent as they were a century ago
  •  The Midwest has experienced two record-breaking floods in the past 15 years
  • Average annual temperatures are expected to increase two degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades—and as much as 7 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, with more warming projected for summer than winter
  • Precipitation is expected to increase in the winter and spring
  • Summer precipitation will likely decline
  • More of the precipitation is likely to occur during heavier events
  • As temperatures and humidity increases, heat waves, reduced air quality, insect-borne diseases, pollen production, and growth of fungi are more likely to occur
  • Heavy downpours will overload drainage systems and water treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases
  • Average water levels in the Great Lakes—reservoirs for 20 percent of the planet's fresh surface water—could drop as much as two feet this century, affecting beaches, coastal ecosystems, fish populations, dredging, and shipping

Some of the effects of the changing climate are already inevitable and will require human and animal populations to adapt. Other effects can be mitigated by limiting future emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases... George Will won't but we have to.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 16

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

Hello, and happy Tuesday. Here's what's new in health, environment, and science:

Healthcare mythology day: In critiquing Obama's plans for more healthcare spending, conservatives revive two favorite chestnuts of anti-nationalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Obama trots out his own old wives' tale, suggesting that restricting medical malpractice lawsuits could help reduce healthcare costs.

Geek out on futuristic climate solutions: Should we tether kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream to harvest its massive wind power? Maybe. Block out the sun to keep earth from heating up? Probably not.

Salacious wildlife news: An environmental group says Obama's nominee for head of the US Fish & Wildlife Service whored out panther habitat to sprawl-mongering developers. 

And one last question: Did you celebrate Meatless Monday?

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Cute Endangered Animal of the Week: Hawaiian Monk Seal

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 6:01 AM EDT

The cute, endangered animal for this week is the state mammal of Hawaii, the Hawaiian Monk Seal. According to forbidding signs posted on Hawaiian beaches, the monk seal is "one of the most endangered species in the world," with only 1,400 individuals. The Hawaiian Monk Seal lives in the quiet Northwestern islands of Hawaii like Kawa'i whose golden beaches and jungled peaks appear in movies from South Pacific to Jurassic Park. If you do happen to see a monk seal, you wouldn't be blamed for thinking they're dead since the animals always seem to be lying comatose on the sand while warm Hawaiian waves crash over their rotund bodies. Approaching the be-whiskered beasts is a federal crime, and a health risk: because these seals evolved without human contact, they have little fear of people and will bite. Hard.

When not lazing under a tropical sun, monk seals eat fish, squid, and even lobster when they can get it, reaching up to 600 lbs in weight and 7 feet in length. Continuing commercial development, disease, fishing nets, and global warming are current threats to the seal population, especially to new mothers who do not eat and lose hundreds of pounds while nursing their young for six months. As human development continues, Hawaiian Monk Seals are being seen on the more inhabited islands of Hawaii: the Center for Biological Diversity,  Ocean Conservancy, and (as of last week) NOAA are proposing the federal government expand the protected seal habitat to include the main islands, but no word yet on when, or if, the government will revise the seals' protected range. 

To learn more about the Hawaiian Monk Seal and see a gallery of pictures, you can visit the Kaua'i Monk Seal Watch Program's website here.


Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

Just Another Meatless Monday

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 5:07 PM EDT

 Just in case you needed yet another reason to go veggie, Sir Paul McCartney is lending his jowly, loveable face to Meatless Monday, a campaign to get everybody to give up meat, on Mondays. If you're still reeling from PETA's Sea Kittens campaign, rest easy—this one is about people, not animals. Tofu-pushers at The Monday Campain and Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health say that reducing America's meat consumption by just 15% would combat obesity (and its related ailments) and shrink our carbon footprint. All we have to do is skip the Mini Sirloin Burgers.

Right. As an apolitical vegetarian, I was skeptical. Then I read some of The Monday's statistics (you can follow the footnotes at the bottom of the page). Did you know, for example, that 16 oz of red meat (about 1.5 Big Macs) requires 2,000 gallons of water to raise? Maybe it ought to be a meatless Monday after all. 


Geoengineering's Day in the Sun?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 4:43 PM EDT

This weekend, the Washington Post reported on a simple step Americans can take to mitigate the effects of climate change: painting our roofs white.

Energy Secretary Stephen Chu explained that white paint "changes the reflectivity...of the Earth, so the sunlight comes in, it's reflected back into space," pointing out that roof painting is "something very simple that we can do immediately." He's right. Small-scale bright, green ideas like painting our roofs white and keeping our tires inflated are not only easy, they're also pretty cheap. 

Matt Yglesias also supports the white-roof strategy, but worries that it could lead to more obstructive tactics like blocking out the sun and changing the structure of clouds which "could have extremely dangerous unintended consequences and pose all sorts of problems."

Yikes. I'm not convinced that roof painting is a slippery slope toward geoengineering. But Yglesias is right that these ideas have been gaining traction. John Holdren, one of President Obama's top science advisors, told the AP in April that we might consider sending pollution particles into the atmosphere to deflect the sun's rays before they reach earth. Even though this method could have dangerous side effects, Holdren said, "we might get desperate enough to want to use it." And the US responded to a 2007 report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a statement saying that "modifying solar radiance may be an important strategy" to battle climate change. 

Hasn't anyone else seen The Simpsons? Anyone?

Can Jet Stream Winds Power The World?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2009 4:27 PM EDT

There's enough power in high altitude winds to power all of modern civilization. A new study in Energies analyzes where the best winds flow.

Obviously, the jetstream powers along like a jet. At 30,000 feet, winds are far steadier and 10 times faster than winds near the ground.

A variety of tech schemes have been proposed to harvest this energy, including tethering kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream. Current designs could generate 40 megawatts of electricity and transmit it to the ground via the tether.

So where do the Earth's jet streams run most strongly and consistently? The researchers assessed wind power density from 28 years of data, taking into account wind speed and air density at different altitudes. The highest wind power densities appear in the polar jet streams:

  • over Japan and eastern China
  • over the eastern coast of the United States
  • over southern Australia
  • over north-eastern Africa

The median values in those places were greater than 10 kilowatts per square meter. Even the best winds on the ground generate less than 1 kilowatt per square meter.

Of five major citites assessed, Tokyo, Seoul, and New York have enormous potential. (New York claims the highest average high-altitude wind power density of any U.S. city, about 16 kilowatts per square meter.) Tropical Mexico City and Sao Paulo are rarely affected by the polar jet streams, and just occasionally by the weaker subtropical jets, so their wind power densities are lower.

However, even the powerhose citites get windless times about 5 percent of the time. Which means we'll need back-up power, or massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental or even global electricity grid to make it work. 

Worldwide infrastructure? Worldwide cooperation? Or War of the Winds?