Blue Marble

Cement Plant Powered by Huggies

| Thu Sep. 25, 2008 7:31 PM EDT

Here's an idea that gives new meaning to waste management: to help produce energy, the Devil's Slide Cement plant in Morgan, Utah burns surplus diapers.

By mixing leftover Huggies with traditional sources, the company cuts coal consumption by 30 percent and prevents the disposables from clogging landfills. Only catch? Unused nappies only, please.

—Nikki Gloudeman

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China's September Surprise: Tainted Formula Sickens 53,000 Infants

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 6:12 PM EDT

The Chinese government managed to keep its latest disaster under wraps last month when Beijing was all the world's stage: it's top formula-brand, and 21 others, have been tainted with melamine, the industrial chemical that led to more than 100 recalls of Chinese-made pet food here in the US and has been blamed for thousands of pet deaths.

What started out as a notification that one company was affected ballooned to 22 and now the government is admitting that the tainted milk has led to the deaths of at least four infants and has sickened another 53,000. Unlike seafood (and everything else), the US doesn't allow dairy imports from China, so no formula in the US is at risk, though the FDA has stepped up testing of candies and other desserts made of dairy products in China.

Cases started cropping up several months ago but the government was slow to respond and even slower to notify the public of the potential that the formula they were using was unsafe. Children are showing signs of incontinence, vomiting, and kidney trouble. Melamine is used to artificially boost protein content, a move seen as a way to cut corners in a Chinese production market where suppliers are forbidden from boosting prices.

Investigators are suggesting that the government knew about the tainted formula as far back as March, and a bad-news ban leading up to the Olympics put the health of thousands of children at risk.

If These Are the Tainted Chinese Imports the FDA Is Catching, What Are They Missing?

| Wed Sep. 24, 2008 3:16 PM EDT

Recently released records for the month of August confirm that the FDA is still intercepting shipments of tainted seafood coming in from China. The first item on the rejection list? Frozen Breaded Shrimp, refused entry for containing "veterinary drug residues." But no Refusal Actions list is complete without the tainted Eel we've reported on previously. Sure enough, only nine items down—past the Prawn Crackers withheld for "unknown coloring" and the Unidentified White Powder lacking any directions whatsoever—there it is, the persistent Eel, Frozen, Vacuum-Packed, Prepared, Cooked, and complete with "unsafe additives."

Highlights of August's records include Frozen Cod Portions, Cod Blocks, Cod Fillets, Sole Fillets, Mahi Mahi Fillets, and Canned Chunk Tuna that were withheld for being "filthy, putrid, or decomposed," while the Frozen Squid Salad contained "a poisonous and deleterious substance." And that's just the seafood. It begs the question—if this is what the FDA is catching, what are they missing?

William Hubbard, a retired senior Food and Drug Administration official who served under seven presidents, told Mother Jones that as of this spring there were only about 300 inspectors to spot-check more than 13 million annual shipments. Given this, it's pretty certain that some of this tainted seafood is making its way onto your dinner plate.

Want more information? Here's where to find it.

Asheville, NC is Out of Gas

| Tue Sep. 23, 2008 4:45 PM EDT

gas.jpg The city of Asheville, North Carolina and surrounding towns are so short on gas that residents must wait over an hour to fill their tanks, reports the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Many gas stations have closed altogether. Those which remain open have police stationed at the pumps to prevent fights from breaking out—one driver threatened another with a baseball bat. Asheville officials have canceled all nighttime events, and the county is asking that nonessential employees work from home or switch to a four-day week.

The gas crunch began after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike swept through the Gulf Coast, shutting down the oil refineries that supply western North Carolina. Because of its relatively remote location high in the Blue Ridge mountains, county officials estimate that shortages in the Asheville area will continue at least through the end of the month.

New Study Puts The "Perma" Back In Permafrost

| Mon Sep. 22, 2008 6:38 PM EDT

It's not perfect, but it's something: A new study from researchers at the University of Alberta says that Arctic permafrost may be less vulnerable to global warming than previously thought.

The study, which will be published tomorrow in the journal Science, found that a permafrost ice wedge in Canada's Yukon Territory is more than 700,000 years old, meaning that it withstood two previous cycles of intense warming. Lead researcher Duane Froese said that the findings mean we're further from a widespread thawing—and the catastrophic release of carbon and other gases that would accompany it—than earlier predictions have suggested.

Great, right? Not so fast, says Froese. While deep, ancient frost like the chunk he studied may be safe, the top layers of permafrost, formed much more recently, remain in serious danger. And it's those layers that could cause the most damage.

Still, it's heartening to know that at least some parts of the Earth are more resilient than we think they are. Of course, 700,000 years ago, no one was trying to see how far they could push that resilience.

Science Predicts The Election

| Fri Sep. 19, 2008 8:02 PM EDT

800px-ElectoralCollege2004.svg.png This has been kicking around for a while but the flips of late are interesting. An astrophysicist whose ranking system influences which college football teams get into the top four bowls each year is taking aim at predicting presidential races. Wes Colley at the University of Alabama Huntsville and J. Richard Gott III at Princeton came up with a way to gauge which candidates are ahead in each state.

Their system is simple: Take the margins of victory for each candidate in each poll, line them up in order from smallest to largest, then use the median as the candidate's score for that state. The winner in that computation is also the candidate winning the majority of the polls in that state. Their paper will appear in next month's Mathematical and Computer Modeling.

Colley and Gott first tested the system in the 2004 and correctly predicted the winner between Kerry and Bush in 49 of the 50 states. They also predicted the electoral votes each candidate received. They missed only Hawaii. Well, Hawaii shouldn't be tough to call this year. Follow the horse race at their Electoral Scoreboard, including daily tracking scores.

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

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Happy National PARK(ing) Day!

| Fri Sep. 19, 2008 6:38 PM EDT

parkingday_300x200.jpgIf you drove through San Francisco today and pulled up to a parking spot covered with shrubbery, don't be alarmed: the spot was likely claimed for 2008 National PARK(ing) Day, a global one-day event that transforms metered parking spots into temporary public parks.

Down the street from MoJo, greeters at a busy intersection directed lunchtime walkers to the eco-friendly benches parked in one such spot, themed "Permeability." Part public service announcement, part mini-flash mob, the annotated parking spot map by the McCall Design Group directed visitors to the water-saving landscape solutions present on this patch of asphalt, including composted bark mulch, native plants, tufted hairgrass, and water-filtering aqua-stone.

National PARK(ing) Day was started in 2005 by the Rebar Group, an interdisciplinary coalition of San Francisco artists, designers and activists. Since then, cities such as Portland, Seattle, and Tuscon have followed suit.

According to Nikki Wisser, an associate with McCall Design Group, their permeable spot hasn't drawn any irritated bystanders.

"I'm just glad I'm not driving today," said one man with a chuckle as he walked past.

Photo by Jin Zhu.

French Pique-Nique Update

| Fri Sep. 19, 2008 1:41 AM EDT

Flash: The French are dropping plans for a picnic tax (per earlier blog). It's elitist. Apparently the rich don't pique-nique and the pollution of the non-rich isn't important.

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

Vote Your Fears

| Fri Sep. 19, 2008 1:15 AM EDT

711px-Menschliches_Auge.jpg People who react strongly to bumps in the night, spiders, or the sight of a victims are more likely to support more defense spending, more government resources for fighting terrorism, and tighter immigration controls. This according to a new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published in the current issue of Science.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and tested 46 people who identified themselves as having strong political opinions. The subjects were shown threatening visual images—pictures of a spider on a person's eyeball, a dazed person with a bloody face, an open wound with maggots in it. The subjects' skin was monitored for electrical conductivity—an indicator of emotion, arousal, and attention. As a separate physiological measure, the subjects were surprised by a sudden, jarring noise, while measurements were taken of their blink reflex.

Those with the strongest eye or skin reactions to unexpected noises or threatening pictures tended to endorse political positions emphasizing protecting society over preserving individual privacy. These people were found to be more willing to sacrifice their privacy in return for what they perceived as government protection. Conversely, the subjects who reacted less strongly were more likely to favor policies that protect privacy and encourage gun control. . . It's all in the biology. Even for disbelievers of biology.

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

Beam It Down, Scotty

| Tue Sep. 16, 2008 10:07 PM EDT

CoronaSolar.gif Want solar without all the hassle of clouds and night? Beam it down from space. John Mankins of Space Power Association ran the first technical test on this old idea and announced the new results last week, reports Nature.

For less than $1 million and only 4 months of prep, Mankins transmitted microwaves from Maui to the neighboring island of Hawaii—proving that energy can be transmitted all the way through the atmosphere.

Here's the deal: Even on a sunny day, the atmosphere absorbs and scatters half the Sun's rays. Panels in orbit could collect it all, daytime, nighttime, and every time in between. Beam the energy via microwaves to the surface. The microwaves will pass unhindered through our 60-mile-thick atmosphere. Presto. 100-proof solar fuel.

So many solutions. But so many Galvestonians standing dumbfast as the storm approaches. Can we get moving? Please?

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