Blue Marble

Man-Made Chemicals Reduce Animals' Masculinity

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 5:32 PM EST

red-deer-stag.jpgThis week, the British organization CHEM Trust, which is financially supported by WWF-UK and Greenpeace, published a report (.pdf) reviewing scientific literature on the reproductive health of wildlife in contact with chemical pollutants. These pollutants include the usual suspects: phthalates, bisphenol A, PCBs, DDT, atrazine, etc. All of these chemicals have been covered extensively by Mother Jones, such as in the current issue's "Let's Go Europe," about European chemical regulations.

In a press release, the report's author, Gwynne Lyons, commented that, "Man-made chemicals are clearly damaging the basic male tool-kit." The report concludes:

Some of the most prevalent effects reported in male wildlife, which are associated with pollutants, are related to genital disruption (GD). GD includes an array of manifestations. Notable amongst these are: intersex features (such as egg tissue in the testes of the male); small phallus; small testes; undescended testes or other obvious structural defects of the male reproductive tract; or ambiguous genitals.

And the human implications?

Taken together, the effects seen in wildlife should raise concerns for contaminant induced genital disruption in human male infants. Indeed a condition called testicular dysgenesis syndrome, including birth defects of the penis of baby boys, cryptorchidism (undescended testes), reduced sperm production and testicular cancer, has been suggested, because there is evidence to indicate that these effects may be interlinked in causation. Scientists have also noted that the rapid pace of the increase of human male reproductive disorders indicates an environmental cause as do studies following baby boys born to immigrants who take on the same risk for testicular cancer, as the offspring of residents born in that country.

[Update: Mother Jones reporter Josh Harkinson points out that male Polar Bears have been hit especially hard by pollution-related "genital disruption"—their penises are shrinking.]


Photo used under Creative Commons license.

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New EPA Fugitive List = Pretty Useless

| Wed Dec. 10, 2008 3:05 PM EST

The EPA today released a new, "America's Most Wanted"-style list of environmental fugitives. Many of the fugitives, who have been charged with everything from "illegal discharge of hazardous pollutants" to "illegal asbestos removal," are suspected to have fled to countries like Syria and Denmark. Grant Nakayama, an official in the EPA's enforcement division, said in a press release that "Putting this information on the EPA's website will increase the number of 'eyes' looking for environmental fugitives."

While portraying people who commit environmental crimes as serious criminals is definitely laudable, EPA enforcement has been almost completely toothless under the Bush administration. You gotta wonder if, even if they the EPA does get information on these fugitives, they'd actually try to convict them. According to the Associated Press, in 2008 the EPA opened 100 fewer criminal enforcement cases than they did in 2004. In 2006, it began shutting down its research libraries. As one senior EPA scientist, Wes Wilson, told us in the current issue, the EPA has moved far from its investigative past. "Now we sit around and basically do nothing," he said.

Not only is the EPA investigating fewer cases, it's getting political interference on the cases it has pursued. According to a recently retired EPA official, the DOJ may have improperly shut down an investigation of a huge 2006 BP oil spill. Maybe the EPA is just treading water waiting for an Obama-related reorganization, but I couldn't help but feel the list is a waste of resources without including more headshots of CEOs from oil and energy companies. Though CEOs aren't fugitives, when it comes down to it, their corporations are the ones doing the major damage, not guys like Alessandro Giordano who "illegally imported automobiles that did not meet the United States emission standards." For my taxpayer dollar, I'd prefer to see less energy spent looking for small-time criminals abroad, and more effort on catching those really big fish here at home.

Get Paid, Lose Weight

| Tue Dec. 9, 2008 10:54 PM EST

800px-United_States_one_dollar_bill%2C_obverse.jpg The power of money. Obese people offered a financial reward for every pound lost shed more weight during a 16 week trial than those given diet advice. That's not all. Previous studies show that smokers and cocaine addicts can be weaned off their habits by paying them to stay drug-free. Kids in developing countries actually attend school more when their parents are paid for it. A study currently underway in New York is assessing whether cash incentives motivate parents to send their kids for regular health check ups.

The diet study from U Penn found that many participants put weight on again after the program ended. The authors suggest long lasting results need long lasting payments. The paper appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

So what would thinner people buy for the planet? How about fewer greenhouse gas emissions. And what else might we buy for the common good? Peace? Rational thinking? If all it takes is money and we're already running the presses overtime, why not print some more?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Co2 To Ploughshares

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 10:22 PM EST

800px-Farmer_plowing.jpg An ancient method of ploughing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years. Here's how it works: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Burning these plants and trees in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell estimates the carbon storage time of stable biochar could be a few thousand years, reports Reuters.

Lehmann's ambitious scenario estimates biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually. That's more than 10 percent of 2007's 8.5 billion tons of global carbon emissions. His conservative scenario prescribes heating without oxygen (pyrolysis) 27 percent of the world's crop waste and ploughing it into the soil to store 0.2 billion tons of carbon a year.

According to the International Biochar Initiative, soils with biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients. . . Two big howevers: We can't cut forests to do this and we can't avoid reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. But we can put all the little fixes together starting now.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

Food News Round-Up

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 7:04 PM EST

As I was browsing the internet and reading e-mails today, I came across a number of interesting food-related headlines. Instead of blogging them all, I've put them in an easily digestible (no pun intended) format, below:

  • Tomorrow, Greenpeace will release a new version of their list of supermarkets ranked in order of seafood sustainability. At the top, Whole Foods. At the bottom, stores like Trader Joe's and Price Chopper that still stock "red list" animals like swordfish and Chilean sea bass.
  • A new gadget that looks like a Pixar character produces drinking water out of humid air.
  • Netflix is buying DVDs of a controversial animal rights documentary, despite the fact the film has no distributor. The documentary, Earthlings, was requested by so many Netflix users that the company decided to make an exception to their usual policies.
  • PETA's Bruce Friedrich, via the Huffington Post, raises some interesting points about a comprehensive food policy under Obama.
  • Vanilla-lovers may be in trouble. A nasty, orchid-killing fungus has broken out on the island of Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla beans.
  • Experts say just because a fruit is brighter, or tastes better, doesn't mean it's more nutritious.
  • Cell Phones Fry Memory

    | Fri Dec. 5, 2008 9:27 PM EST

    Rats exposed to mobile phone radiation for two hours a week for more than a year suffered memory loss. The findings may be related to earlier findings that microwave radiation from cell phones affects the blood-brain barrier.

    The team from Lund University in Sweden previously found that albumin, a protein that acts as a transport molecule in the blood, leaks into brain tissue when lab animals are exposed to mobile phone radiation. Now they find damaged nerve cells in the cerebral cortex and in the hippocampus, the memory centers of the brain. Although the albumin leakage occurs directly after radiation, the nerve damage takes four to eight weeks to manifest.

    Furthermore, the team discovered alterations in the activity of a large number of genes after cell phone radiation—not in individual genes but in groups that are functionally related. "We now see that things happen to the brains of lab animals after cell phone radiation. The next step is to try to understand why this happens," says Henrietta Nittby. She has a cell phone herself, but never holds it to her ear, using hands-free equipment instead. . . The lab animals, lacking opposable thumbs, have no choice. Oh, wait, aren't we all lab animals, in our own special way?

    Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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    Cluster Bombs, Now Slightly Less Incredibly Depressing

    | Fri Dec. 5, 2008 1:49 PM EST

    Yes, the US still refuses to stop stockpiling the pretty, brightly-colored death toys colloquially known as cluster munitions. But isn't it nice to know that at least some of our NATO allies are smarter than that?

    From an observer in Oslo of the cluster munitions treaty signing this week: "We have heard a great deal about child soldiers, but what we are witnessing here is a children's peace. In the Oslo City Hall just one block from the Nobel Peace Center, I cannot help but wonder if it is time for children to be awarded the Peace Prize."

    Barring that, maybe kids can at least be awarded the right to play without danger on a former battlefield gone to grass.

    Parting Shots: Bush Administration Reverses Rule Protecting Grand Canyon

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 8:29 PM EST

    In an 11th hour move, the Bush Administration today reversed an old federal rule that would have allowed Congress to take action to protect the Grand Canyon from a rash of new uranium mining claims. Driven by renewed national interest in nuclear power, the number of uranium claims staked within five miles of the Grand Canyon has increased from 10 in 2003 to 1,181 as of this October. Rampant mining near the Canyon would threaten the water quality of the Colorado River, potentially jeopardizing the drinking water supply of millions of residents in Las Vegas and Southern California. Prompted in part by the concerns of local water agencies, in June the House Committee on Natural Resources invoked its right under the Federal Land Management and Policy Act to withdraw the mining claims. But the Bureau of Land Management refused to implement the order, and the Bush Administration's rule change today gives it official authority to thumb its nose at Congress.

    Ultimately, Bush's move will probably do more to increase his radioactivity with voters than it will to heat up the tap water in Las Vegas; the Obama Administration will certainly reverse Bush's reversal. But more important, the Grand Canyon flap underscores the hopeless antiquity of the nation's mining laws. The General Mining Law of 1872, which was written by Nevada's first senator and signed into law by President Grant, enshrines mining as the "highest and best use" on 350 million acres of federal land. It also allows mining companies to cart off public minerals without paying a cent of royalties. Efforts to reform the law began almost as soon as it passed and have failed at ever turn, including this year, when a reform bill was to have been introduced in the Senate but wasn't. But with Bush-era environmental horrors fresh on the mind, and public coffers emptied, expect that to change in the coming session.

    Will a Western Gross National Happiness Index Catch On?

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 2:42 PM EST

    Below is a guest blog entry by Hong Kong-based journalist Don Duncan.

    In Buddhist Bhutan, it is common wisdom that every creation requires destruction. That's hearteningly optimistic for the Western economists who descended on the tiny country for the international Gross National Happiness Conference last week.

    Gross National Happiness, or GNH, requires that advances be made on nine key fronts in order for national progress to be achieve—education, health, culture, community vitality, living standards, psychological wellbeing, the ecology, and balanced time use. All government policy making in Bhutan is guided by these principles.

    During the high capitalism of Reaganomics, Thatcherism and, more recently, free market fundamentalism, the doctrine met with incredulity and derision. Even if you can define national happiness, how on earth can you measure it?

    Gore: Clean Coal Doesn't Exist. But Should It?

    | Thu Dec. 4, 2008 1:06 PM EST

    During his campaign, Obama called for clean coal technology. His website promises to "enter into public private partnerships to develop five 'first-of-a-kind' commercial scale coal-fired plants with clean carbon capture and sequestration technology." But on Thursday, Al Gore tossed a bucket of cold water on so-called "clean coal."

    He launched a new coalition called the Reality Campaign, a multimillion dollar ad campaign that seeks to convince the public that clean coal—at least for now—is a myth.

    Gore's goal is to counter claims that coal companies and the US Department of Energy have made about "a new generation of energy processes that sharply reduce air emissions...from coal-burning power plants," as the DoE puts it. Here's a recent ad from America's Power, a company that makes electricity from coal, that maintains clean coal technology can produce lower emissions than regular coal-burning power plants do now (which the coalition says are greater than emissions from all the cars and trucks in America):

    The problem is, according to the Reality Coalition, there's no such thing yet as "clean" coal. The coalition doesn't exactly say there could never be a clean way of burning coal in the future. But they do say that the myth that clean coal already exists today allows companies like Clean Coal Technologies Inc. to misrepresent their plants' impact on the environment and make a buck while doing so.

    Ultimately, there might not be a major disagreement between Gore and Obama on clean coal. Obama is only for it if it can be developed, and he acknowledges it's not here yet. The Gore campaign seems to be more concerned with now rather than later and trying to make sure that people know what Obama knows. The technology to burn coal cleanly has yet to be developed and implemented. Might Gore support clean coal technology if it ever does get off the shelf? Maybe he'll tell us that in the next ad.