Blue Marble

More Cell-Phone Wariness From Docs

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 3:40 PM EDT

cellphone150.jpgThe Baltimore Sun reports that another group of doctors has voiced its concerns about cell phones. They're the latest to do so; last year, a different group published the Bioinitiative Report, a roundup of some of the studies that suggest a link between cell-phone radiation and brain cancer.

This new group includes some bigwigs—most notably Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Herberman told the Sun, "Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later."

This, in a nutshell, is the precautionary principle, which is an important piece of this whole debate—but it's not really anything we haven't heard before. And we probably won't hear anything new until more science is in. Unfortunately, this could take quite a while. So the question remains: Should we follow Herberman's advice and use our mobiles sparingly till we know more?

Full disclosure: After researching "This is Your Brain on Cell Phones," I bought a headset. Just in case.

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Cow Poo Power Redux

| Thu Jul. 24, 2008 11:51 PM EDT

800px-Bos_taurus_taurus_relaxing.jpg California's already trying it. The people of India have been burning gobar for millennia. Now a new study finds that converting cow poo into a biogas could generate 3 percent of North America's electricity annually. Better yet, it would decrease greenhouse gases.

Here's why. If livestock manure is left to decompose naturally it emits two badass gases: nitrous oxide and methane. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane is 21 times more potent.

The researcher examined two hypothetical scenarios. The first: business-as-usual, burning coal and letting manure decompose. The second: anaerobically-digesting manure (think compost) to create biogas and burning it to offset coal.

The results? The hundreds of millions of livestock inhabiting the US could produce 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Enough to power millions of homes and offices.

So could we call the first poo generating station the George W. Bush Shite House?

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

Carbon Offsets: Laughing off Climate Change?

| Thu Jul. 24, 2008 2:41 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal, here's the Kyoto Treaty's latest carbon offset scandal:

Rhodia SA manufactures hundreds of tons a day of adipic acid, an ingredient in nylon, at its factory [in Korea]. But the real money is in what it doesn't make. The payday, which could amount to more than $1 billion over seven years, comes from destroying nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, an unwanted byproduct and potent greenhouse gas. It's Rhodia's single most profitable business world-wide. Last year, destroying nitrous oxide here and at a similar plant in Brazil generated €189 million ($300.5 million) in sales of pollution "credits." . . .The [French-owned] Rhodia factory is slated to bring in more money, under the U.N.-administered program, than all the clean-air projects currently registered on the continent of Africa.

This story should lay to rest any doubts that carbon offsets must be treated with the utmost skepticism by lawmakers. It reprises a similar debacle I reported here, involving refrigerant manufactures who were "paid" under Kyoto to create more greenhouse gases so that they could destroy them and call it a carbon offset. The Rhodia case is all the more troubling because the culprit is a French company that should be running green anyway and because Kyoto's regulators were supposed to have learned how to prevent this by now. In short, buyer beware as the United States shops for its own legislative solution to climate change.
So why are these glaring cases of profiteering being glossed over in Washington? As I note in our July/August issue, the biggest carbon offset companies have partnered with some of the world's biggest polluters in an attempt to sculpt the details of a U.S. climate bill. (Lieberman-Warner would have allowed companies to meet up to 30 percent of their emission reductions with offsets). Hardly anybody is talking about this. The offset lobby still enjoys the kind of positive PR that its industrial partners can only dream of. It's a joke, but they're the ones who'll laugh to the bank.
 

Eat Less, Save The World

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 4:27 PM EDT

800px-L%E9gumes_01.jpg Yup, it's that simple. Nineteen percent of total energy used in the US is tied to producing and distributing food. Too much food. Three times more than we actually need.

Cornell researchers suggest we eat less. The average American consumes 3,747 calories a day. That's 1200-1500 calories more than recommended. It's the reason we're fat and unhealthy, while our planet is lean and unhealthy.

The problem is that American diets are larded in animals and in junk food. Both use more energy to produce than healthful staples like potatoes, rice, fruits, and veggies.

By eating less junk and less meat, the average American would have a massive impact on fuel consumption and his/her health.

The authors suggest moving towards more traditional, organic farming methods for meat and dairy. They suggest crop farmers reduce pesticides and use more manure, cover crops, and crop rotations for better energy efficiency.

Changing the way we process, package and distribute food would help too. Although apparently the single most dramatic improvement in energy use would come from you and me consuming less processed foods. On average, American food travels 1,500 miles before it gets eaten.

Try the Modern Commandments: 1) Buy local. 2) Support organic and sustainable farms. (Stop whinging about the price, you're going to buy and eat less.) 3) Eat mindfully and savor every nourishing bite.

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

Horse Virus Spreading to Humans

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 10:43 PM EDT

Horses.london.750pix.jpg Heads-up on new developments on a new disease. Australia's biggest outbreak yet of the highly virulent Hendra virus is underway. The disease is transmitted from fruit bats to horses and from horses to humans.

It was identified in 1994—the last year there was a major outbreak. One human trainer and 14 horses died then, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. A second infected person recovered.

Now changes in symptoms in Queensland horses are suggesting a new strain. Perhaps one capable of human-to-human transmission.

New Scientist reports that two veterinary workers became infected roughly four weeks ago and remain hospitalized. Fifty more people who may have had contact with horses will undergo a second set of tests.

So far this year at least seven horses are infected. Five have died. Thirty-six more will be tested for a second time tomorrow.

The classic symptom of Hendra virus in a horse is severely labored breathing, frothy nasal discharge and swollen muzzle. The animals often die within days.

But this year's horses are suffering from neurological symptoms, including paralysis and loss of balance.

Human symptoms include a severe flu-like illness, headache, high fever, and drowsiness, which can progress to pneumonia, convulsions, or coma.

The Hendra virus has not been identified outside of Australia. Every outbreak since the first has been successfully contained to only one horse. Between 1994 and now, one other person was infected and survived. Though, confusingly, the US Centers for Disease Control reports that two out of three human infections prior to this year were fatal.

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

Bad Air Killing Eastern US

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 8:28 PM EDT

800px-Gavin_Plant.JPG Thinks it's just China? Well, every major ecosystem type in the eastern US is being degraded by air pollution. That's right: Adirondack forests, Shenandoah streams, Appalachian wetlands, and the Chesapeake Bay, to name a few.

A new report [pdf] is the first to analyze the combined effects of four air pollutants across a broad range of habitat types.

Most studies focus on one pollutant. And why not? Things always look so much better that way.

But the sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and ground-level ozone that are released into the air from smokestacks, tailpipes, and agricultural operations fall back to Earth sooner or later. Ooops.

And because the eastern U.S. is downwind from gynormous pollution sources, it receives the highest levels of deposited air pollution anywhere in North America.

That's bad news for wildlife, forests, soil, water, and, guess what?, economies.

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Beijing Spectators Risk Heart Attacks

| Mon Jul. 21, 2008 3:40 PM EDT

beijing200.jpgResearchers at Northwestern University warn that pollution in Beijing is so extreme that it could trigger cardiac arrest and strokes in spectators and athletes.

Advice from the docs:

Stay indoors during traffic rush-hour periods. "Indoor air pollution levels are always much lower than outdoor, so staying inside will limit your exposure," Budinger said. He cautioned that Beijing's definition of mild pollution would be a pollution alert day in the U.S.

So that's all good advice for the millions who will be descending upon Beijing for a few weeks, but what about the people who actually live there?

Oh yeah, them: The 750,000 Chinese people that die prematurely from pollution every year—and that the Chinese government doesn't want you to know about. Are they just supposed to stay inside all day every day?

For a good overview of some of the emergency measures Beijing officials have taken to prepare for the Olympics, go here. Hope they keep it up after the party ends. For everyone's sake.


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Commemorating Bush's Sh*t

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 7:33 PM EDT

263388397_6feb4ae850.jpg My favorite news of the day. And one reason my heart will always be in San Francisco.

A measure has qualified for San Francisco's November ballot renaming the Oceanside Water Pollution Control Plant the George W. Bush Sewage Plant.

In recognitionof the crap Bush left behind in Iraq. And everywhere.

A quagmire named for the Begetter-of-all-Quagmires.

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

The Blue Marble Gets a Moon

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 7:08 PM EDT

And we get to see it in orbit around the Earth. Thanks to NASA's Epoxi spacecraft, en route to Comet Hartley 2 in 2010. The film was shot from 31 million miles away. An alien's p.o.v.

Such a pretty world. Why don't we take better care of it?

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

How Long Will You Live? Depends Where You Live

| Fri Jul. 18, 2008 5:57 PM EDT

The American Human Development Project's new report measures the well being of US citizens based on education, health, and income. Unsurprisingly, being an American is much better for some than others.

Of the ten states with the highest median earnings, six are in the Northeast while the rest are just south of there. A whopping 46% of Texas' 29th District (East Houston) never graduated from high school, compared to a drop out rate of only 5% in California's 30th District, which includes Beverly Hills and Malibu.

How well off are you? Test yourself here. Want more? Watch this.

The report may be telling us what some of us already know about our abysmal health care system—that we spend more per person than any other nation only to die younger than basically all of Western Europe—but when the life expectancy of residents in Kentucky's Fifth District is 73 years (same as our national average was in 1978), hard numbers are still sobering.

—Brittney Andres