Blue Marble

Premature Births Linked to Pesticides

| Tue May 8, 2007 3:21 PM EDT

Premature births vary with the season, but there's nothing natural about it. Preterm birth rates peak when pesticides and nitrates measurements in surface water are highest, from April through July, and bottom out when nitrates and pesticides were lowest, in August and September, a new study found. A previous finding was that birth defects peak from April through July, the same months as pesticides and nitrates reach their maximum concentrations in surface water. The rate of premature birth in the United States has risen almost a third since 1981. Here's more on the effect of endocrine disruption in child development.

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Seeding the Seas with Iron

| Mon May 7, 2007 8:54 PM EDT

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Could sprinkling iron across the oceans prevent global warming? Sadly, it appears not. Since phytoplankton are the largest carbon dioxide sink on earth, larger than even all terrestrial plants, one idea was to dust the oceans with iron to feed phytoplankton. Scientists hoped the little organisms would quickly sink to about 300 meters, beyond the reach of that zooplankton, one level up on the food chain. Unfortunately, small-scale tests found that instead of sinking to the sea floor, the extra phytoplankton get quickly eaten by zooplankton, who metabolize and re-emit the carbon. Too bad. Still, a research ship is seeding waters around Galapagos anyway, just to bring attention to the role of phytoplankton in climate change.

Weird Weather Watch: Another Town Bites the Dust

| Mon May 7, 2007 10:05 AM EDT

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This weekend, as residents of the Foggy City dusted off their bikinis and Speedos in record-breaking 80-degree heat, the town of Greensburg, Kansas, became the second U.S. city to be destroyed by climate change. A series of tornados massacred the small town west of Wichita, destroying 95 percent of its buildings. (Miraculously, only 10 died.) The big one was a mile and a half wide with winds over 200 miles an hour (it was a class F-5 tornado, the most severe). Is there online betting for how many cities will be demolished before the federal government gets serious? Change may not be as painful as we think, as April blogged. And even if it does mean giving up cars and some air travel, it can't be as bad as the alternative.

Friday Ape Blogging: Activists Want Human Rights for a Chimp

| Fri May 4, 2007 7:42 PM EDT

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This is Hiasl. He's 26, fairly artistic, and very hairy. Born in Sierra Leone, he was captured and smuggled out but intercepted by customs agents in Austria, a country with strict laws against animal cruelty, where he wound up in a shelter.

Now the shelter has gone bankrupt, and to protect him, advocates say he needs basic human rights. "We're not talking about the right to vote here," said Eberhart Theuer, a lawyer leading the challenge. "We mean the right to life, the right to not be tortured, the right to freedom under certain conditions."

It's part of the Great Ape Project. Not all animal rights activists agree with the strategy. Michael Antolini, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Austria, "I'm not about to make myself look like a fool" by getting involved.

Julie MacDonald's Legacy: Fewer Endangered Species

| Thu May 3, 2007 7:59 PM EDT

Good bye and good riddance to Julie MacDonald of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was forced to resign because documents she leaked to industry lobbyists surfaced later in lawsuits against the federal government. Quite embarrassing, you can imagine.

But there were a ton of even better reasons for her departure. For example, "she demanded that the determined nesting range of the Southwest Willow Flycatcher be shrunk from a 2.1 mile radius to 1.8 miles, so that it would not cross into the state of California, where her husband's family owned a ranch."

As a henchman for the Bush Administration's ungreening of America, MacDonald's work is behind the seeming-miraculous comeback of so many species delisted as endangered in the past few months. To name a few in different states, grizzlies, gray wolves, crocodiles, flying squirrels, and manatees.

It's not that they suddenly bounced back to normal populations. It's that the feds, as Jen blogged, changed the definition of "endangered."

Unfortunately, take out one fool, and there's another standing by to replace her. It appears that her successor, Todd Willens, earned his creds spearheading former California Rep. Richard Pombo's anti-endangered species agenda.

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You're on you're own, manatee.

Orwellian Language Obscures the Health Care Debate

| Thu May 3, 2007 6:37 PM EDT

Healthcare is complicated enough without doublespeak like this in the Wall Street Journal: "Too much government support risks crowding out private-sector insurance alternatives Mr. Bush wants to promote." That's the Bush Administration's spin on scrimping on a federal grant program that boosts medical care for poor children by insuring their parents. Obviously, private insurance is not an "alternative" for families who can not afford it. Or maybe the reporter means "alternatives" for the government, like subsidizing private insurance?

The Bush Administration may believe that market forces make health care more efficient. But the market doesn't always its magic everywhere. (The invisible hand has students at the top of their medical school classes going into dermatology. They can make easier money injecting Botox and Restylane than saving lives).

The truth is, the private insurance maze makes health care more expensive. It's the reason why Americans spend 50 percent more per capita than any other country does on medical care. How so? Private medical insurance actually takes up a dollar out of every three spent on health care in this country. If only this money went straight to the hospitals that serve the poor, it would pay for a lot more care and medicine.

But no. So we still have tragedies like the 12-year-old in February who died of a tooth infection that spread to his brain before his mother could find a Medicaid dentist to extract the tooth.

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Weird Weather Watch: Last Month Was Britain's Warmest April on Record

| Thu May 3, 2007 6:29 PM EDT

Last month was the warmest April since records began in 1659 in the UK. Temperatures peaked at more than 79F. That heat means 2007 is likely to surpass 2006 as the warmest year on record, according to forecaster Paul Knightley.

Pepsi's Good For You, Miracle-Gro Grows Greedy

| Wed May 2, 2007 9:00 PM EDT

PepsiCo, makers of soda and beef jerky and Funyuns, may not be the healthiest company you could buy from, but it is one of the greenest. Earlier this week, the EPA issued its top 25 Green Power Partners list, and PepsiCo was top dog. The EPA attributes the company's position to its "commitment to purchase 100 percent green power," which would be enough to power nearly 100,000 homes.

Green power is great, but wouldn't it be better if they didn't use so much power to begin with? Or if they didn't use so much packaging for their products? At least PepsiCo's 20 oz. plastic bottles are lighter than before (by 13%) and contain 10% post-consumer material, so they cost less in transportation costs and use less plastic. The company says that 48 million of its drink containers are recycled every day.

Some of those old Pepsi bottles head to a small New Jersey organic plant food company, TerraCycle, which reuses many of the bottles to package their totally organic fertilizer. Now TerraCycle, with 33 employees and a measly $1 million in revenues, is being sued by Scotts (makers of Miracle-Gro), a mega-company that owns 59% of the plant food market. Scotts is outraged TerraCycle is using yellow and green packaging with pictures of flowers, similar to Miracle-Gro. Thus, their lawyers say, TerraCycle MUST be trying to trick gullible people into thinking the products are the same. Both products even use the same label: "all purpose plant food." Egads!

The pictures of the products should give any person with common sense the answer as to whether or not the lawsuit is warranted. And besides, pictures of plants on plant food? Who'd a thunk? My question: Miracle-Gro launched its "Organic Choice" line of products a year before TerraCycle was created, and is very publicly trying to make more environmentally-friendly packaging. Is it coincidence that they're suing an organic, sustainably-packaged product, not one of the 81 other plant and lawn products with green-and-yellow labels, or is it just a paranoid attempt to secure their monopoly?

You decide.

—Jen Phillips

Deep Mud Seafloors Face Quiet Destruction

| Wed May 2, 2007 8:56 PM EDT

The first study ever done of the effects of bottom trawling on mud seafloors off the West Coast of North America suggests alarming environmental changes. The study by Mark Hixon of Oregon State University and Brian Tissot of Washington State University found that trawling not only reduces fish numbers, but also severely alters communities of organisms inhabiting these deep-sea habitats. Their research compared trawled to untrawled areas 600 to 1,200 feet deep off the southern Oregon coast, comprising thousands of square miles. They found nearly 20 percent fewer fish in the trawled areas, and 30 percent fewer fish species. Certain seafloor dwellers, including sea pens and crabs, were six times more abundant in areas that had not been trawled. Furthermore numerous scavenging species in trawled areas largely replaced the marine life common on undisturbed seafloors. This report is the first to examine the effects of a common fishing practice on a vast ocean floor ecosystem off Washington, Oregon, and California -- the mud flats that dominate more than 75 percent of the outer continental shelf.

Imagine bulldozing entire landscapes to collect a few rabbits and gophers. That's what bottom trawlers do in pursuit of sole, lingcod, rockfish and other common seafood staples, by dragging large nets along the seafloor and scooping up everything in their path. It's estimated that trawlers drag nets across every square inch of the bottom of the continental shelves every two years, trawling some regions many times a season.

Regulations, including gear modifications and closed areas, have actually steered trawl fisheries toward the mud seafloors, keeping them out of rock or coral areas, because trawls cause less environmental damage on mud. But the long-term implications of fishing with this technology over such a broad area are a concern, say Hixon and Tissot.

Wonder what's down there? Read about some Alvin dives in the current MoJo article Gone. And you may remember Mark Hixon's fascinating work on BOFFFs (big-old-fat-female-fish) reported in The Fate of The Ocean (Mar/Apr 2006).

Feel confident about what to eat from the sea? If not, check out this click. --JULIA WHITTY

Hopeful George: Tortoise Might Not Be Lonesome Anymore

| Wed May 2, 2007 8:19 PM EDT

Please, John Tierney, say it isn't so. In your New York Times blog Lonesome George Isn't Looking So Lonesome you bring us the truly welcome news that Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise from the Galapagos, may not be the last of his kind after all.

After analyzing the genes of 27 tortoises on another Galapagos island, Isabela, biologists discovered that one tortoise's father was a Pinta tortoise -- perhaps one who was removed from Pinta by some of the sailors who contributed to the decline of the species. Since there are between 2,000 and 7,000 tortoises on Isabela whose genes haven't yet been analyzed, it seems likely that one or more will turn out to be purebred Pinta tortoises, according to Michael Russello of the University of British Columbia.

But then you tell us you're worried about George's celebrity, his ability to raise money for efforts to slow down the sixth great extinction underway. Crikey, mate. I can't think of a better fundraiser. Let's rename him Hopeful George and watch the pesos roll in. --JULIA WHITTY