Blue Marble

Exploding Oil Trains Could Become a Horrifying New Normal

| Mon Feb. 23, 2015 1:11 PM EST
An oil train smolders after it derailed and exploded in West Virginia last week.

Last week, a train carrying oil from North Dakota derailed in West Virginia, spilled oil into a river, and sent a horrifying fireball shooting into the sky. The incident came only a few days after another oil train spill in Ontario. In fact, in the last few years the number of oil train accidents has skyrocketed, thanks to booming production in the northern US and Canada that has overwhelmed the existing pipeline network.

Oil train accidents like those could become a regular fixture in headlines across the US, according to a Department of Transportation analysis uncovered by the Associated Press over the weekend:

The federal government predicts that trains hauling crude oil or ethanol will derail an average of 10 times a year over the next two decades, causing more than $4 billion in damage and possibly killing hundreds of people if an accident happens in a densely populated part of the U.S.…

If just one of those more severe accidents occurred in a high-population area, it could kill more than 200 people and cause roughly $6 billion in damage.

The report blamed the projections on the drastic uptick in oil-by-rail traffic, as well as on severely lagging safety standards for rail cars (check out our in-depth multimedia story on the latter here).

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Eat Like A Mongolian, Not Like An American

| Fri Feb. 20, 2015 3:29 PM EST

The world, as a whole, is getting less hungry. Over the past two decades, the levels of undernutrition in developing countries from Sub-Saharan Africa to Southeast Asia have declined. Unfortunately, so has the quality of our diets.

That's the main takeaway of a study published by The Lancet Global Health on Wednesday that looked at the dietary patterns across 187 countries—comprising about 89 percent of the global population—in 1990 and 2010. Check out the maps below, which break down eating habits by country on a scale of green (the healthiest) to red (the unhealthiest). The first map shows which countries are eating the most healthy foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, and milk (see, for example, Chad, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Turkey). The second map shows which countries are eating the most unhealthy foods that are high in fat and salt, as well as sugary drinks, unprocessed red meats and processed meats (see the United States, Russia, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Brazil, among others).

Fumiaki Imamura et al / The Lancet Global Health

The next three maps show changes in dietary patterns from 1990 to 2010, again on a color scale, with green countries making healthy changes and red countries making unhealthy changes. Russia, Mongolia, Laos, and Paraguay are outpacing many other countries with their increase in nutritious foods, as the top map shows, while the second map reveals that Uganda, Vietnam, and Armenia are quickly finding a taste for fatty or sugary treats. And when it comes to overall dietary changes since 2010, shown in the last map, it seems that China, Angola, and Congo aren't doing very well.

Fumiaki Imamura et al / The Lancet Global Health

A team of researchers made these maps by evaluating hundreds of national surveys about diets. Looking at the big picture, they found that people around the world are, on average, eating more nutritious foods than they did 20 years ago, but they're also digging into more junk—much more junk. "Consumption of healthier foods and nutrients has modestly increased during the past two decades; however, consumption of unhealthy foods and nutrients has increased to a greater extent," the researchers explained.

People around the world are, on average, eating more nutritious foods than they did 20 years ago, but they're also digging into more junk.

On average, older adults are eating better than younger adults, while women are eating better than men. There are also major differences regionally, depending on countries' income levels. While people in the United States, Canada and western Europe are among the worst in the world for high consumption of unhealthy food, they're eating less junk than they used to, which helps explain reductions in blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and cardiovascular mortality in these countries. By comparison, people in many developing countries eat relatively healthy diets, but they're eating more junk than they did in the past.

These socioeconomic variations have ramifications for public health. International food programs usually focus on fighting hunger, but in nearly every region of the world, the researchers said, diet-related health problems due to undernutrition are now less common than those due to non-communicable chronic diseases, and the food we eat plays a role in causing many of these diseases. By 2020, nearly three-quarters of all deaths globally will be attributable to non-communicable chronic diseases, they said, adding that without major changes to diet quality, these diseases and obesity will become much more common among the world's poor.

It's unclear exactly why low-income countries are eating more unhealthy foods, but the reasons are probably varied. In northwest sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers said, food prices have increased and diet quality has worsened, perhaps due to economic liberalization and marketing of unhealthy foods to the region's wealthiest people. Violent conflicts might also play a role in certain countries, by hindering food production and trade. "Our work should help to link the possible economic and political factors to actual diets," they wrote, "and to assess determinants of the potential divergence in consumption of healthy foods in the poorest nations in the world."

Here's What the Government Thinks You Should Be Eating in 2015

| Thu Feb. 19, 2015 9:09 PM EST

Earlier this week, I wrote about some of the nutrition controversies surrounding the release of new United States Dietary Guidelines in 2015. The Guidelines, which inform public health initiatives, food labels, and what health-conscious parents decide to make for dinner, are revised every five years, with help from a scientific committee.

Today, that committee released its initial scientific report, an extensive 572-page tome on all the current thinking about healthy diets.

So what are we eating—and what should we be eating—in 2015?

  • Perhaps the biggest change this year could breathe some life into your breakfast habits: The cholesterol in egg yolks is no longer as much of a health concern. The US Dietary Guidelines used to recommend that you eat no more than 300 milligrams of dietary cholesterol a day, or under two large eggs. But this year, the committee has scrapped that advice as new research suggests that the cholesterol you consume in our diets has little to do with your blood cholesterol. Saturated fats and trans fats, on the other hand, could boost your blood cholesterol levels, as could unlucky genes.
  • The committee found that Americans lack vitamin D, calcium, potassium, and fiber in their diets. We also eat too few whole grains. On the other hand, we eat far too much sodium and saturated fat. Two-thirds of people over age 50, those most at risk for cardiovascular disease, still eat more than the upper limit, or 10 percent of their daily calories from saturated fat.
  • Gardeners, rejoice: The committee applauds vegetables in its latest report, describing them as "excellent sources of many shortfall nutrients and nutrients of public health concern." Unfortunately, our veggie intake has declined in recent years, especially for kids. Only 10 percent of toddlers eats the recommended 1 cup of vegetables a day.
  • Added sugars, which make up 13.4 percent of our calorie intake every day, contribute to obesity, cavities, high blood pressure, and potentially cardiovascular disease. If you are in tip top shape, the committee suggests keeping your added sugar consumption under 10 percent of your daily energy intake, or roughly 12 teaspoons (including fruit juice concentrates and syrups). But for most people, the report adds, the ideal amount of added sugars is between 4.5 to 9.4 teaspoons a day, depending on your BMI.
  • Most adults are fine to keep drinking alcohol in moderation—one cup a day for women, and up to two for men. "However," writes the the committee, "it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits."
  • Be it máte, espresso, or chai, your caffeine habit is fine in moderation, up to 400 mg a day (3-5 cups of coffee). But before you start handing out the Rockstars: The committee found evidence that high levels of caffeine, such as those found in energy drinks, are harmful to kids and pregnant women. (Plus: See above for the danger of the added sugars found in many of these energy drinks).
  • Seafood is a pretty healthy thing to eat from a dietary standpoint, and concerns about mercury don't outweigh the health benefits of eating fish, according to the committee. And yet, the collapse of fisheries due to overfishing "has raised concern about the ability to produce a safe and affordable supply." The report suggests that both farm-raised and wild caught seafood will be needed to feed us in the future.
  • The committee found that a diet "higher in plant-based foods...and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current US diet." A group of 49 environmental and animal-welfare groups sent a letter to the US Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services to urge them to embrace this sustainability-oriented message in their Dietary Guidelines, which are set to be released later in 2015.

 

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.

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.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

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.

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!