Blue Marble

Rocket Fuel Found in Infant Formula

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:40 AM EDT

A scary new under-the-radar CDC study has found that 15 infant formulas sold in the US are contaminated with the rocket fuel additive perchlorate—which is even worse than it sounds, because so is the tap water parents mix formula with.

From the Environmental Working Group:

Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that 15 brands of powdered infant formula are contaminated with perchlorate, a rocket fuel component detected in drinking water in 28 states and territories.
The two most contaminated brands, made from cow’s milk, accounted for 87 percent of the U.S. powdered formula market in 2000, the scientists said.
The CDC scientists did not identify the formula brands they tested.
The little-noticed CDC findings, published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, raise new concerns about perchlorate pollution, a legacy of Cold War rocket and missile tests. Studies have established that the chemical is a potent thyroid toxin that may interfere with fetal and infant brain development (Kirk 2006).

Read the full EWG report, or learn more about perchlorate in this Mother Jones investigation by David Corn.

Update: Don't miss ProPublica's story on perc problems.

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Senate Introduces Mining Reform Bill

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 4:30 PM EDT
Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico has just introduced a mining reform bill in the Senate, bringing Congress one step closer to updating the nation's most outdated public lands law, the General Mining Law of 1872. A similar bill from House stalled in the Senate last year, where Majority leader Harry Reid, the son of a gold miner, has been a powerful ally of the hard rock minerals industry. Mining companies are still allowed to remove minerals from public lands without paying a cent in federal royalties. As I reported in a recent profile of Reid, Nevada remains an anachronism in a region that is becoming much less tolerant of the America's most polluting industry.

Bingaman's bill is less progressive than a similar House measure, but might win key support from Reid and moderate Republicans. According to Velma Smith, the manager of the Pew Campaign for Responsible Mining, the bill proposes reducing the House's proposed 8 percent royalty to something between 2 and 5 percent, to be set at the discretion of the Department of Interior. It would also impose a reclamation fee of .3 to 1 percent.

In what's been a keen interest of Bingaman's, the bill also asks the National Academy of Sciences to perform a study on uranium mining. Smith says uranium, which is the only energy mineral overseen by the mining law, may be moved to a leasing system. Environmentalists have been concerned that mining on any one of 1,200 uranium mining claims along the Colorado River could pollute the water supply for Las Vegas and Southern California.

In other important respects, the Senate and House bills are the same. Both call for stricter environmental permitting of mines, better ways for lands to be set off-limits to mining, and more financial assurances that mining companies will clean up after themselves. The cost of cleaning up abandoned mines in the U.S. is now estimated to be at least $32 billion.

Will Reid support the bill? "I really don’t know," Smith says. "My sense was that Senator Bingaman's office took a long time vetting this with a lot of people. I don’t see this as an extreme bill by any means. So I think there’s a chance for the industry and environmentalists to come together."

The Catholic Church, AIDS, Condoms, and Specious Arguments

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

In a post Ross Douthaut called The AIDS Libel, he employs some dubious rhetoric in defense of the church's insistence on abstinence, vice condoms, in the face of an African epidemic. First he demands proof that African Catholics have higher infection rates. OK, to save time, I'll give him that one. But not this one:

...consider that Benedict XVI is the head of an international institution that does as much to fight disease and poverty as any NGO in the world. The Church runs hospitals, clinics, and schools; it channels hundred of millions of dollars in donations from the developed world to the wretched of the earth; it supports thousands upon thousands of priests, nuns and laypeople who work in some of the most difficult and dangerous conditions in the world. And it does so based on the same premises—an attempt to be faithful to the commandments of Jesus Christ—that undergird the Pope's insistence on preaching chastity, rather than promoting prophylactics. There are many other NGOs working in Africa that proceed from different premises, and take a different attitude toward matters sexual as a result, and if David Rothkopf prefers their approach that's perfectly understandable. But unless he's willing to tell the Catholic Church that it should fold up its charitable operations in the developing world and go home, I'd prefer to be spared the lectures on how the Pope is responsible for "massive death and suffering" among populations for whom Catholic institutions have provided lifelines beyond counting over the years, just because he isn't willing to to use his pulpit to preach the importance of playing it as safe as possible, health-wise, while you're committing what the Church considers mortal sin.

Let's begin with this: Where does the church get the bazillions it dispenses as largesse around the world? From individuals and from the incredible wealth it's amassed over time based on its influence. It didn't earn that money; it was given that money. And that bankroll rightly belongs to the world and should be spent there.

When the Pope gives up his mansions and jewel encrusted hand towels, I'll be impressed with his munificence. The church has a duty to the world to do the good it does. That's why we give it money (tax exemption, anyone?). To make the world better.

Next: Because the Catholic Church conducts large scale charity, it cannot be criticized?

Scientists Name New Syndrome: Limbaughtosis

| Wed Apr. 1, 2009 8:31 PM EDT
It's like halitosis, only it's bad breadth not breath. In other words, a case of severely overweighted self worth notable for its rush onset, sweatiness, febrile humor, heavy breathing, spitting, and verbosity. There's no known trigger though some speculate on electromagnetic waves. There's also no known treatment. Time-release drug formulas seem to exacerbate the symptoms.

Patient X, who does not wish to be identified, says his affliction with Limbaugh Syndrome is a living hell. He describes obsessive demons of righteousness and a compulsion to fight for individual rights—except those that fail to appease his obsessive demons of righteousness. The conflict exhausts him.

He can't sleep. There's insomnia over phantom governments. There are nightmares of unchanging ideals. He is forever tripping over his own unapologetic rules. Faith blindsides him.

It's also intensely emotionally lonely, says Patient X. He feels like a lone voice in an answerless universe. He expects a God-given natural right to be free yet imagines himself irretrievably trapped inside a small soundproof room amid billowing clouds of smoke.

Patient X secretly hopes for help from stem cell therapy. But he doesn't want to rush for a cure either. He can't envision life without his disease.

Hayfever? Just Blow Your… Knob

| Tue Mar. 31, 2009 10:22 PM EDT
Health alert: Spring and hayfever go together like, well, sex and sneezes. All those flowers. All that green grass. Kachew.

But, guys, you get a break on this one. A neurologist from Tabriz Medical University in Iran proposes that a well-timed ejaculation will clear your bunged nose. Too.

The logic goes like this: the nose and genitals are both connected to the sympathetic nervous system that controls certain reflexes. A blocked nose is caused by swollen and inflamed nasal blood vessels irritated by an infection or by pollen in the air. But during ejaculation the sympathetic nervous system constricts blood vessels across the body. That should soothe the swollen nasal blood vessels, freeing the airway for deep, er, that is, normal breathing.

Sina Zarrintan, the neurologist, says he hasn't actually tested this yet. Right, and the pope doesn't have wet dreams.

But if it works, whacking off could offer many advantages over decongestant drugs, which can cause hypertension and make congestion worse over the course of a few days, writes Zarrintan in Medical Hypotheses.

He suggests masturbating or having sex whenever the symptoms are bad enough to warrant another ejaculation. And when aren't they? The patient can adjust the number of intercourses or masturbations depending on the severity of the symptoms, he says. It's the best scrip of all: Take as needed.

Work this in with a little sneeze fetishism and it gets downright fun to be miserable in the spring—if you're a guy, that is. Global warming gets some much-needed kink.

Millions Of Americans Travel Abroad For Health Care

| Tue Mar. 31, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

Remember when we were the gold standard? Now, there's an entire niche industry springing up to help Americans get good health care they can afford.

From CNN:

Sandra Giustina is a 61-year-old uninsured American. For three years she saved her money in hopes of affording heart surgery to correct her atrial fibrillation. "They [US hospitals] told me it would be about $175,000, and there was just no way could I come up with that," Giustina said.
So, with a little digging online, she found several high quality hospitals vying for her business.... Within a month, she was on a plane from her home in Las Vegas, Nevada, to New Delhi, India. Surgeons at Max Hospital fixed her heart for "under $10,000 total, including travel."
How do they do it? With wacky ideas like these one: "Max neurosurgeon Dr. Ajaya Jha said the hospital can provide high-quality care at low prices because the staff work hard to cut waste. 
"I've seen hospitals in the US where they open up something costing $10,000 and say, 'Oh it's not working. OK, give me another one.' We would never do that here. Even for 100 rupees (about $2) -- we would say, "Do we need to open this suture? Do we need to open this gauze?' We are very conscious of cost."
The salary of a US surgeon is five times that of a surgeon in India. "We [surgeons in India] want to make a profit, but we don't want to profiteer. We don't want squeeze people and I think American industries should also think that way," Jha said.

Profit, not profiteering. What a concept.

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Easy Fixes: Fish Oil Curtails Cow Farts

| Mon Mar. 30, 2009 7:21 PM EDT
Adding 2-percent fish oil in the diet of cattle reduces the amount of methane emissions out their back ends. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are legendary and probably inflated but in this case the effect seems positively deflationary.

According to Lorraine Lillis, speaking at the Society for General Microbiology in the UK: "The fish oil affects the methane-producing bacteria in the rumen part of the cow's gut, leading to reduced emissions. Understanding which microbial species are particularly influenced by changes in diet and relating them to methane production could bring about a more targeted approach to reducing methane emissions in animals."

Target away, Doctor Lillis.

Cattle, sheep, and goats fart and burp about 900 billion tons of methane a year, more than a third of total global emissions. The problem comes from the methanogen bacteria inside the guts of ruminants. These helpful bacteria enable cows and the like to digest what is essentially indigestible (cellulose). But in the process they off-gas all that methane, which is 20 times more powerful by volume than carbon dioxide at trapping solar energy.

We could attempt to cap the number of flatulent ruminants in farm production as a means to cool global warming. This approach offers many fresh benefits—especially since meat and dairy are so insanely energy intensive, even without the farting. But if reduction never happens, we could still lower methane emissions via fish oil.

Or, better yet, flaxseed oil... can Doctor Lillis look into its omega-3 powers? If flaxseed works, then we don't have to rape the seas to feed the cows who eat the grain grown with fossil-fuel technologies only to fart the methane just so we can eat the cows and fart the methane from our meat-clogged digestive tracts... then maybe  we'll all live happily ever after.

(Burp.)

Owned By The Shark Fin Soup

| Sun Mar. 29, 2009 5:48 PM EDT

An innovative video from NotOnOurMenu.com, designed to get whomever eats the wretched and wretchedly expensive stuff to stop. Nearly 100,000 tons of shark fins were brought to market from all over the World Ocean in 2006. Most were destined for the shark-fin-soup capital of the world, Hong Kong. A tasteless bowl of the stuff, often seasoned with chicken broth, nevertheless costs $200 a pop. Recession can't come hard enough or fast enough to this line of business.

Microchipping The World To Pieces

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 6:31 PM EDT
Modern manufacturing methods are spectacularly inefficient in their use of energy and materials. Overall new manufacturing systems are anywhere from 1,000 to 1 million times bigger consumers of energy, per pound of output, than traditional industries. Microchips use orders of magnitude more energy than manhole covers.

This according to a detailed MIT analysis of 20 major manufacturing processes. "The seemingly extravagant use of materials and energy resources by many newer manufacturing processes is alarming and needs to be addressed alongside claims of improved sustainability from products manufactured by these means," says Timothy Gutowski [pdf] of MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering.

Manufacturers have traditionally been more concerned with price, quality, or cycle time, and not as concerned with energy use. That will change, though, when energy prices rise again and when/if a carbon tax is adopted.

Take solar panels. (Say it isn't so!) Their production uses some of the same manufacturing processes as microchips but on a larger scale. Plus their production is escalating dramatically. The inefficiency of current solar panel manufacturing drastically reduces the technology's lifecycle energy balance.

Translation: the ratio of energy the panel produces over its useful lifespan compared to the energy required to manufacture it sucks.

The good news is that this study published in Environmental Science & Technology is making the first important steps toward understanding which processes are most inefficient and which and need further research to develop less energy-intensive alternatives.

Example: many newer processes involve vapor-phase processing (e.g., material is vaporized in a vacuum chamber to make a coating). Depositing a coating from a liquid solution is better and could be developed to downsize the energy footprint.

The study covered everything from old fashioned industries like a cast-iron foundry all the way up to semiconductors and nanomaterials. It included injection molding, sputtering, carbon nanofiber production and dry etching, along with more traditional machining, milling, drilling and melting. (However, the researchers only looked at processes where electricity was the primary energy source, hence no analysis of pharmaceutical or petroleum industries.)

Plus the figures are inherently conservative since they don't include things like the energy required to make the materials themselves or the energy required to maintain the environment of the plant (air conditioning, filtration).

Gutowski's bottom line: new processes are huge users of materials and energy and have increased our energy and materials consumption by three to six orders of magnitude. The "claims that these technologies are going to save us in some way need closer scrutiny. There's a significant energy cost involved here [and] each of these processes could be improved."

Take heed bright green environmentalists.

Chinese-Made Drywall: The Next Tainted Product Crisis?

| Fri Mar. 27, 2009 1:46 PM EDT
Chinese-made drywall releases a rotten egg smell and might be corroding household wiring and causing health problems. It was installed throughout the Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as U.S.-made drywall became scare in the midst of the housing boom. One hundred and fifty homeowners have complained about drywall odors to the Florida Health Department; the large homebuilder, Lennar Corp., has been forced to rip out walls and is suing Chinese drywall companies; and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission is investigating whether the drywall is posing a potential safety hazard. The Wall Street Journal, the only national paper that has covered the issue extensively, wonders if Chinese drywall is the "new mold." It's certainly the new toy or dog food, other Chinese product lines that have proven potentially dangerous and led to recalls. The drywall scare will compound the housing crisis by further burdening struggling builders and homeowners. And it points to the hollowness of the housing boom in the context of the global economy. Even our homes weren't made at home, and the housing boom has imported toxic assets to Main Street in more ways than one.