Blue Marble

A Superbug Nightmare Is Playing Out at an LA Hospital

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 7:00 AM EST

In today's terrifying health news, the Los Angeles Times reports that two medical scopes used at UCLA's Ronald Reagan Medical Center may have been contaminated with the potentially deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). Two patients have died from complications that may be connected to the bacteria, and authorities believe that 179 more patients have been exposed.

Most healthy people aren't at risk of catching a CRE infection, but in hospitals this bacteria can be quite dangerous: CRE kills as many as half of all people in whom the infection has spread to the bloodstream. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are working with the California Department of Public Health to investigate the situation, which is expected to result in more infections.

The problem isn't just in Los Angeles, though. Last month, USA Today reported that hospitals around the country struggle with transmissions of bacteria on these scopes—medical devices commonly used to treat digestive-system problems—and there have been several other under-the-radar outbreaks of CRE.

This is pretty scary stuff, considering that we are starting to fall behind in the antibiotics arms race against bacteria. Due in large part to unnecessary medical prescriptions and overuse of antibiotics in our food supply, these superbugs are on the rise. In a study published last year that focused specifically on hospitals in the Southeast, researchers reported that CRE cases had increased fivefold between 2008 and 2012.

As Mother Jones' Tom Philpott wrote recently, unless something changes, it will only get worse:

in a new report, the UK government has come out with some startling global projections. Currently, the report finds, 700,000 people die annually from pathogens that have developed resistance to antibiotics, a figure the report calls a "low estimate." If present trends continue, antibiotic failure will claim 10 million lives per year by 2050, the report concludes. That's more carnage than what's currently caused by cancer and traffic accidents combined.

The CDC has, in recent years, amped up its efforts to contain the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and has developed a toolkit to help educate both patients and medical practitioners. The Obama administration has increased funding in 2015 for CDC research into how to better detect these types of infections. It also expanded the National Healthcare Safety Network to track threats of superbugs and areas of antibiotic overuse.

But the CDC emphasizes that more must be done:

Can you imagine a day when antibiotics don't work anymore? It's concerning to think that the antibiotics that we depend upon for everything from skin and ear infections to life-threatening bloodstream infections could no longer work. Unfortunately, the threat of untreatable infections is very real.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Is the Government About to Warn America Against Meat?

| Mon Feb. 16, 2015 7:00 AM EST

Every five years, the United States Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Health and Human Services (HHS) get together to revise their recommendations about what Americans should eat. These guidelines influence doctors' health advice, food labels, the ever evolving food pyramid-turned-plate, and what goes into school lunches. For instance, in 2010, a time when more than half of adults were overweight or obese, the agencies recommended things like drinking water instead of sugary beverages, filling half your plate with fruits and veggies, cutting sodium, and just eating less in general.

It's 2015, so time for some new advice. The guidelines draw on input from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee (DGAC), which will publish a report sometime this winter. So what are the hottest items under debate this year? Here's a run-down of what to look for in the upcoming Dietary Guidelines for Americans report:

The meat vs. plants showdown: It probably comes as no surprise that Americans eat a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables and full of too many solid fats. In fact, vegetable consumption was on the decline between 2001 and 2010 even as each of us now eat 202.3 pounds of meat a year; a bit less red meat than a few years ago but more poultry than ever before. In the past, the government has warned against overdoing it with red meat and urged people to chow down on lean meats like chicken and fish instead. But this year, for the first time, the committee might caution against overconsumption of all kinds of meat—and not just for health reasons, but also because of meat's environmental footprint. Livestock operations now produce 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions. Eating fewer animal-based foods "is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact," the committee suggested in its draft report.

Raising livestock now comprises 15 percent of the world's carbon emissions.

Which of course has ruffled the meat industry. Removing lean meat from healthy diet recommendations is "stunning," read a recent statement by the North American Meat Institute. "The committee's focus on sustainability is questionable because it is not within the committee's expertise."

Cholesterol is back: Your body makes its own cholesterol but you also get some when you eat animal fats, including eggs. Previous guidelines warned that too much of the waxy substance in the blood leads to higher risk of heart disease, and recommended that adults consume no more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol a day. But this year's guidelines might downplay dietary cholesterol's risk, marking the comeback of the daily omelet. The DGAC's December meeting notes stated that "cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

"We now know that cholesterol in the diet makes very little difference in terms of bad cholesterol in the blood," University of Pennsylvania's molecular biologist Dan Rader told Forbes. People get high cholesterol in the blood because of their genes or because the body's mechanisms for cleaning out blood cholesterol aren't working properly, he explains.

"Cholesterol is not considered a nutrient of concern for overconsumption."

We've been cautioned against cholesterol in our diets for the last fifty years, ever since the American Heart Association warned about it in 1961, reports the Washington Post. But in late 2013, a task force including the AHA found "insufficient evidence" in studies it reviewed to warn most people against eating foods high in the substance, such as eggs, shellfish, and red meat.  

Put down the soda: I repeat: Put down the soda. Americans consume way too much added sugar, 22 to 30 teaspoons a day by some estimates, or nearly four times the healthy limits proposed by the AHA. And sugar-sweetened drinks account for nearly half of these added sugars. As Mother Jones has reported over the years, these jolts of added sugar have been linked with obesity, diabetes, metabolic disease, and a whole host of other ailments.

The World Health Organization turned heads last year when it reduced its recommendation about healthy added sugar intake from roughly 12 teaspoons to around 6 teaspoons a day (aka less than one can of Coke). The Dietary Guidelines might not go that far, but this year the committee will likely propose limits on added sugar for the first time: No more than 10 percent of your daily energy should come from added sugar, the committee suggests, which comes out to about 12 teaspoons a day for an adult with an average BMI.

Not sure how we feel about salt: "Sodium is ubiquitous in the food supply," noted the Committee in its December meeting notes. The 2010 Guidelines recommended that adults consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day, a far cry from the 3,400 mg we inhale on average. The Guidelines also suggested that certain at-risk groups like people over age 51 and diabetics should eat less than 1,500 mg a day.

But while a 2013 report by the Institute of Medicine stated that reducing sodium intake is important for heart health, it also pointed to recent research suggesting that "sodium intakes that are low may increase health risks—particularly in certain groups"—like people with diabetes or kidney disease. The report asserted that there's no evidence of benefits in reducing sodium intake to 1,500 mg for these subgroups or for the general population. While the Committee seems to want to warn people off sodium-laden diets for the 2015 guidelines, given these mixed findings about levels it seems unlikely that it will set a new defined limit.

Bad Man Wants to Ban Bag Bans

| Mon Feb. 9, 2015 3:36 PM EST

Columbia, Mo., is considering a ban on plastic shopping bags. This is good. Plastic bags are wasteful and bad for the environment and generally terrible. They create tons of nasty litter on city streets and can block up recycling facilities. So there's really no reason why grocery stores and other retail outlets should hand out trillions of them for free. Tons of local, regional, and national governments around the world have already figured this out, and implemented bans.

But Missouri state Representative Dan Shaul, a Republican from the suburbs of St. Louis, disagrees. That's why he wants to ban bag bans, with a bill going before committee in the state's legislature this week.

From the St. Louis Riverfront Times:

Shaul, a sixteen-year member of the Missouri Grocers Association, is trying to stop bag bans outright. He says he doesn't want to burden shoppers with an additional fee at the grocery store.

"If they choose to tax the bag, it's going to hurt the people who need that the most: the consumer," especially the poor, Shaul says. "My goal when I go to the grocery store with a $100 bill is to get $100 worth of groceries."

But a ten-cents-per-bag fee for forgetting your reusable bag? "That adds up pretty quick."

Here's the thing, though: Ban bags are actually really good for local economies, because they reduce costs for retailers and cleanup costs for governments. California, which became the first US state to ban bags last fall, previously spent $25 million per year picking them up and landfilling them.

So instead of bag ban bans, a better bill would be a ban on bag ban bans.

Obama: Climate Change Is an "Urgent And Growing Threat" To National Security

| Fri Feb. 6, 2015 3:34 PM EST
The US Navy base in Norfolk, Va., is a key piece of military infrastructure threatened by climate change.

President Barack Obama listed climate change alongside international terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and infectious disease in a new national security strategy plan released today. The plan called climate change "an urgent and growing threat to our national security" and also called for the United States to diversify its energy sources to insulate the country from disruptions to foreign fossil fuel markets.

This isn't the first time the Obama administration has singled out climate as a major national security risk: A Pentagon report in October said global warming has become a short-term priority for strategic military planning. But the issue gets much more airtime in today's strategy than it did in the administration's first, issued back in 2010, where it merited just a few passing references. Overall, the document is in line with the more aggressive climate message that has emerged this year from the White House. You can read it below:

 

We Have Some Really Good News About How America Uses Energy

| Wed Feb. 4, 2015 1:57 PM EST

When you read headlines about how Congress is rife with climate change deniers and willing to vote in favor of a massive oil pipeline that could increase greenhouse gas emissions, it's easy to get discouraged about the direction the US is headed on global warming. But when you look at some of the hard numbers about how Americans are getting their energy, there's actually a lot to be excited about.

This morning Bloomberg New Energy Finance released a fat report on the state of US energy, and it's chock-full of kickass facts and figures that reveal real, tangible progress on reversing the habits that cause climate change. Here are just a few of the most salient bits:

The US is getting way more efficient. It used to be that electricity demand rose and fell roughly in line with economic productivity. That's no longer the case: Thanks to massive gains in energy efficiency in everything from home appliances to factory lines, energy demand is now less tied to economic growth than ever before. In fact, since 2007, electricity demand hasn't grown at all, the report finds. Zero. Another way to say that is that the US is becoming more "energy productive," meaning the US is using fewer units of energy for every unit of GDP. Energy productivity has increased 54 percent since 1990:

BNEF

Since energy makes up about 83 percent of America's total carbon footprint, those gains in efficiency (along with big shakeups in where our energy comes from, which I'll get to shortly) have helped drive total carbon emissions down 9.2 percent from their 2007 all-time peak:

BNEF

Coal is getting the boot. Coal used to provide half or more of the country's electricity. Now, that number is down to 39 percent, thanks largely to increasing reliance on natural gas made plentiful and cheap by the fracking boom. Both production and consumption of natural gas were at all-time highs in 2014:

BNEF

Renewable energy is blowing up. Natural gas isn't the only big winner: Renewables are skyrocketing too. Solar and wind production have more than tripled since 2008. The share of all renewable energy sources combined (including large hydropower dams) in the US energy mix has nearly doubled since 2008, from 8 percent to 13 percent. This chart shows how much new capacity of each energy source was added in each year; the grey is natural gas and the light blue is renewables:

BNEF

As we've reported before, solar is going gangbusters; the bars below show how much rooftop solar was added each year, and the red line represents the cumulative total:

BNEF

Behind that trend is an ongoing freefall in the cost of solar panels. This chart shows how the more solar that gets installed, the cheaper each unit of it becomes, thanks to technology improvements and breakneck production at Chinese factories. The two lines are for different types of modules, but the important thing is that they're both headed downhill:

BNEF

Cars are cleaner, and we're using them less. Gasoline consumption is down 8.6 percent from 2005, which the report attributes to "increasing vehicle efficiency prompted by federal policy, increasing consumer preference for less thirsty vehicles, changing driving patterns (declining number of vehicles on the road, declining miles per vehicle), and increasing biofuel blending." The relative climate benefits of biofuels are still being hotly debated, but the rest of those trends are pretty objectively awesome. The trend for electric vehicles is less impressive. Although the number of public electric vehicle charging stations has exploded 470 percent since 2011, sales are pretty ho-hum. The report blames low oil prices:

BNEF

EPA: Low Oil Prices Will Make Keystone XL A Climate Nightmare

| Tue Feb. 3, 2015 6:28 PM EST

Earlier today the Environmental Protection Agency released a letter that one of its top officials sent yesterday to the State Department, weighing in on the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline. The letter is part of a last round of comments from federal agencies before the Obama administration makes a final decision about whether to approve the pipeline, and environmentalists had hoped that it would spell out the threat the project could pose to the climate.

They weren't disappointed. The EPA letter argues that the recent drop in oil prices means that Keystone XL could come with a major carbon footprint. This is an argument environmentalists like Bill McKibben have been pushing for years. And it's a big deal—President Barack Obama has said that the pipeline will be approved only if it won't increase overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Here's the logic: A pipeline is the cheapest way to move oil; trucks and trains are much more expensive. Canadian tar sands oil is especially expensive to produce. When the price of oil is high, it makes economic sense to export it with trucks and trains. This is the line of reasoning the State Dept. has used to argue that approving the pipeline won't contribute to climate change: The oil is going to get burned with or without Keystone XL, because producers will just send it out some other way. Republicans in Congress have cited that same State Dept. analysis as evidence that Keystone XL isn't the climate-killing monster environmentalists make it out to be.

But when the price of oil is so low, that calculus gets turned upside down. According to State's own analysis, the economic rationale for using trucks and trains starts to erode once the price of oil dips much below $75 per barrel. Right now, oil is hovering around $50 a barrel. So if prices stay low and the if the pipeline isn't built, that oil might actually stay buried—where many climate scientists have said it needs to stay if we're to avoid disastrous levels of global warming.

You can read the full EPA letter below. Here's the key line:

"At sustained oil prices within this range, construction of the pipeline is projected to change the economics of oil sands development and result in increased oil sands production, and the accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, over what would otherwise occur."

Some energy analysts disagree, arguing that oil prices would have to drop much further than current levels to have an impact on tar sands production. And even though there's reason to think oil could be cheap for a while, energy companies don't tend to make big expensive decisions about where and how to drill based on short-term market trends. So there's still room for debate on the EPA's take here.

The EPA letter is likely to become a centerpiece of the pipeline debate as Congress continues to wrangle over the issue. (A bill to approve the pipeline passed the Senate last week, and next week the House is expected to take it up once again. President Obama has promised to veto the bill.) But the more important thing to watch is whether it changes any minds in the Obama administration, which is nearing a final decision on whether the pipeline will be built.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We Have Some Good News For You About the Koala That Was Burned in the Fire

| Fri Jan. 30, 2015 6:09 PM EST
Jeremy the koala in rehab after burning his paws. He was released back to the wild today.

After a series of devastating bushfires ripped through Australia earlier this month, volunteers across the world quickly came to the rescue with custom-knitted mittens for the burned paws of koalas (way too many volunteers, it turns out). The poster koala that sparked the movement was Jeremy, whose heart-rending hospital room portrait quickly went viral.

Good news! Jeremy is fully recovered and back in the wild. From the BBC:

He has since made a complete recovery, says Aaron Machado, who operates the clinic that treated the animal... "The only thing he has to do now is get used to not having any more room service," Mr Machado told the BBC.

Here's to koalas everywhere!

Attention, Sunday Shows: Here Are 5 Republicans Who Won't Lie to Your Viewers About Climate Change

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 6:48 PM EST
If Sens. Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte have a moment after the next Benghazi press conference, you should ask them about global warming.

On Wednesday, I wrote about a new Media Matters for America study that shines a light on a big problem with how TV news shows cover climate change. Scientists overwhelmingly agree that humans are warming the planet, but Media Matters found that the highly influential Sunday morning talk shows often feature misleading talking points from global warming skeptics. Frequently, these segments turn into bizarre debates between those who accept science and those who reject it.

On NBC's Meet the Press, for example, almost two-thirds of the climate coverage last year included "false balance," according to Media Matters. Fox News Sunday and ABC's This Week had similar problems:

mmfa_chart6

The Media Matters study drew the attention of Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). In a press release, he slammed the news networks for misleading viewers "by framing the facts of climate change as a 'debate.'" He urged them "to stop creating a false debate about the reality of climate change and engage in the real debate about how we can solve it."

This presents something of a dilemma for the Sunday shows. Interviewing elected officials from both sides of the aisle is a big part of the reason these programs exist in the first place; they can't host a debate about climate policy and invite only Democrats. At the same time, however, global warming denial is so ingrained on the right that it's becoming increasingly difficult to find Republicans who can talk about the issue without misinforming viewers. The Media Matters report cites a couple examples of this: Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) saying on Meet the Press that there's no scientific consensus on climate change, and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) saying on This Week that "the big debate is how much of it is manmade and how much it will just naturally happen as Earth evolves."

Fortunately—thanks to Schatz—TV bookers now have a handy list of GOP senators who acknowledge the scientific facts surrounding climate change and who, presumably, can participate in an intelligent discussion of what should actually be done about the problem. Last week, Schatz introduced legislation declaring it the "sense of Congress" that climate change is real and that human activity contributes significantly to it. Five Republicans voted in favor of Schatz's amendment: Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.). The other 49 voted no.

There's plenty of room for disagreement on policy matters, of course. Alexander and Graham, for example, have called on the Obama administration to withdraw its proposed greenhouse gas emissions rules, the centerpiece of the president's climate plan. But if the networks are looking for Republicans who can speak accurately about the science, at least now they know where to find them.

(Disclosure: I used to work at Media Matters.)

The Senate Just Approved Keystone XL

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 5:10 PM EST
Senators Lisa Murkowski, Mitch McConnell, and John Hoeven convening earlier today.

The Senate has been a very busy bunch of beavers over the last month. After just a week of being in session, they had already taken more votes than they did in all of 2014. It's all thanks to the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been the primary topic of floor debate for the last three weeks.

Almost immediately after the new Congress got started, the House passed a bill to approve construction of the pipeline. As new Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) had promised, the Senate then took up its own Keystone bill, which President Barack Obama promptly promised to veto. (The president has long maintained that he wants the pipeline to be approved—or not—through the normal State Department process, which is the usual protocol for cross-border infrastructure projects.) Democrats and Republicans alike have sought to load up the Keystone bill with a staggering number of amendments, ranging from an agreement that climate change is "not a hoax" to removing the lesser prairie-chicken from the endangered species list. As of this morning, only five had passed.

Over the last few days, McConnell and Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) have urged their peers to wrap up and take a final vote on the bill, with leading Democrats and environmentalists responding that Republicans were trying to "aggressively" shut down debate.

This afternoon it finally happened, and the Senate bill passed 62-36. According to Politico, House leaders have yet to decide whether to take a straight vote on the Senate bill or send it to a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two versions. Either way, the bill faces an assured veto once it reaches the Oval Office. And unless more Democrats change their tune soon, there is not enough support in the Congress to override the veto.

What's next for the embattled pipeline? Earlier this month, the Nebraska State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Keystone XL's proposed route, a ruling the White House had said was the last piece of the puzzle needed before the Obama administration makes a final decision. So now, once again, the ball is back in the president's court.

 
Via the State Department, the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, shown in yellow.

This Chart Shows That Americans Are Way Out of Step With Scientists on Pretty Much Everything

| Thu Jan. 29, 2015 3:08 PM EST

Here's one big reason why the US has been so slow to take aggressive action on climate change: Despite the wide consensus among scientists that it's real and caused by humans, the general public—not to mention a disconcerting number of prominent politicians—remains divided.

It's not just climate change. On a range of pressing social issues, scientists and the public rarely see eye-to-eye. That's the result of a new Pew poll released today that compared views of a sample of 2,000 US adults to those of 3,700 scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the group that publishes the journal Science.

The biggest split was over the safety of genetically modified foods: 88 percent of scientists think GMOs are safe, compared to only 37 percent in the general public. Interestingly, college graduates were split 50-50. The gap between scientists and the public is smaller on the question of whether to mandate childhood vaccines. But it's still there. Eighty-six percent of scientists and 68 percent of all adults think vaccines should be required.

The poll didn't attempt to explain the gaps between scientists and the general public. On some issues there are clearly factors beyond pure science, like ethics and politics, that influence opinions. For example, scientists show more support for nuclear power, but less support for fracking, than the public. As our friend Chris Mooney has reported many times, these outside factors tend to creep into peoples' opinions even on objective questions like whether humans have evolved.

Lee Rainie, Pew's director of science research, added that trust in scientists can be a big factor. On GMOs, for example, 67 percent of the public believe scientists don't fully understand the health risks. And on issues like climate and evolution, the public believes there to be more disagreement within the scientific community than there actually is, he said.

More interesting findings are below:

Pew