Blue Marble

Here Is the Clearest Image NASA Has Ever Taken of Pluto and its Moon Charon

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 1:25 PM EDT
Pluto, left, and its largest moon, Charon, in a photo taken Wednesday from aboard the New Horizons mission.

For years now, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been hurtling towards the far edges of the Milky Way for its July 14 rendezvous with one of the great mysteries of the solar system: Pluto. But we're already receiving captivating, never-seen-before images of this icy world, such as the one above, of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. NASA says New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles from Pluto when it snapped this picture late on Wednesday. See the full image here.

From NASA:

"These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different," said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

Charon is about 750 miles (1200 kilometers) across, about half the diameter of Pluto—making it the solar system's largest moon relative to its planet. Its smaller size and lower surface contrast have made it harder for New Horizons to capture its surface features from afar, but the latest, closer images of Charon's surface show intriguing fine details.

Newly revealed are brighter areas on Charon that members of the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team (GGI) suspect might be impact craters. If so, the scientists would put them to good use. "If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what's hidden beneath the surface," said GGI leader Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center. "Large craters can excavate material from several miles down and reveal the composition of the interior."

The mission, which launched in 2006, has already traveled 3 billion miles to get to Pluto. The spacecraft will go on to race past the dwarf planet at 30,000 miles per hour next week, absorbing all the data it possibly can about our least-understood distant neighbor—snapping photos with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a little color-adding camera Ralph, and a host of other gadgetry.

We'll bring you the latest images when they become available next week. Can't wait.

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"Safe" Plastic Alternatives Linked to Scary Health Problems

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 5:05 AM EDT

Exposure to two chemicals widely considered safe—and used in hundreds of consumer products including plastics, cosmetics, and soap—has been linked to increased blood pressure, insulin resistance, and other dangerous health problems in children, according to a new study.

The chemicals, di-isononyl (DINP) and di-isodecyl (DIDP), were long seen as safer alternatives to their precursor, a phthalate called DEHP, which was associated with hypertension. Even though their use has been on the rise over the past decade, they were never fully tested—until now.

In one study, researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center analyzed urine samples of over 1,300 adolescents between the ages of 8 and 19 and found that the levels of DINP and DIDP corresponded to levels in blood pressure. In a separate study, the same team studied 356 teens and found a similar correlation between the chemical levels and insulin resistance—a condition that can lead to diabetes.

The researchers recommend limiting exposure to these compounds by avoiding plastics marked with 3, 6, and 7, opting for fresh food over packaged, and making sure never to put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, where they are more apt to leech chemicals.

This isn't the first time plasticizing chemicals marketed as safe alternatives have proven otherwise. In last year's Mother Jones investigation into the dangers of BPA-free plastics, Mariah Blake uncovered the plastic industry's "Big-Tobacco" style campaign to bury research that showed how their products were connected to a litany of health problems—and the US government's failure to step in:

US regulators also have continued to ignore the mounting evidence linking BPA and similar chemicals to human disease, even as bans have cropped up around the world. Although more than 90 studies examining people with various levels of exposure suggest BPA affects humans much as it does animals, the FDA recently announced that its research "supports the safety of BPA" in food containers and packaging. And the EPA program that was supposed to screen some 80,000 chemicals for endocrine disruption hasn't fully vetted a single substance. In 2010, the agency sought White House approval to add some endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in plastic—among them BPA, phthalates, and a class of compounds known as PBDEs—to its "chemicals of concern" list because it found they "may present an unreasonable risk to human health." This would have required chemical makers to share safety-testing data with federal regulators. The proposal languished until last September, when the EPA quietly withdrew it, along with a proposed rule requiring manufacturers to disclose safety data on chemicals in their products.

These Antidepressants May Increase the Risk of Birth Defects

| Thu Jul. 9, 2015 5:22 PM EDT

Babies born to women who took certain antidepressants during pregnancy may have an elevated risk of birth defects, according to a study published Wednesday in the medical journal BMJ.

Over the past few years, researchers have come to conflicting conclusions about the health impacts of taking common antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, early in pregnancy. Some studies have found prenatal exposure to SSRIs to be associated with heart and brain defects, autism, and more, while others have found the risk to be minimal or nonexistent.

The BMJ study, led by researchers at the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shed light on the matter by analyzing federal data of 38,000 births between 1997 and 2009. Researchers interviewed the mothers of children with certain birth defects associated with SSRIs, asking if they took certain antidepressants during the first three months of pregnancy or the month prior to it. Unlike many previous studies, which looked at the effects of SSRIs as a group, the researchers looked at the health impacts of five specific drugs. They found that two drugs were associated with birth defects, while three of the drugs were not. Here are the details:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft): No increased risk of birth defects. (This was the most common of the five drugs, taken by forty percent of the women on antidepressants.)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil): Babies were between 2 and 3.5 more likely to be born with heart defects, brain defects, holes between heart chambers, and intestinal deformities.
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac): Babies were two times more likely to experience heart defects and skull and brain shape abnormalities.
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro): No increased risk of birth defects.
  • Citalopram (Celexa): No increased risk of birth defects.

Researchers are quick to note that even in the case of paroxetine and fluexetine, the absolute risk of these defects is still very small. If mothers take paroxetine early in pregnancy, for example, the chance of giving birth to a baby with anencephaly, a brain defect, rise from 2 in 10,000 to 7 in 10,000.

Some doctors worry that studies like this dissuade mothers who truly need mental health treatment from seeking it—particularly since the stress associated with depression in the mother can impact the health of the baby. Elizabeth Fitelson, a Columbia University psychiatrist who treats pregnant women with depression, described this tricky balance to the New York Times earlier this year: "For about 10 percent of my patients, I can readily say that they don't need medication and should go off it," she said. "I see a lot of high-risk women. Another 20 percent absolutely have to stay on medication—people who have made a suicide attempt every time they've been unmedicated. For the remaining 70 percent, it's a venture into the unknowable."

Solar Power Is Mostly for the Affluent. Here's Obama's Plan to Spread the Wealth Around.

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 12:33 PM EDT
President Barack Obama speaks after touring a solar facility in Nevada in 2012.

Rooftop solar power systems cost a lot less these days than they did five or 10 years ago, and with many solar companies now offering leases and loans, it's safe to say that going solar is more affordable than even before. That trend goes a long way to explaining why solar, while still making up less than 1 percent of the total US energy mix, is the fastest-growing power source in the country.

But access to solar power is still overwhelmingly skewed toward affluent households. Of the roughly 645,000 homes and business with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to a report earlier this year from the George Washington University Solar Institute. The typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home, according to energy software provider Opower.

President Barack Obama wants to change that. On Monday the White House announced a package of initiatives to make solar more accessible for low-income households. The plans include a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems.

Of the country's 645,000 solar homes and businesses, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000.

Low-income households face a number of barriers to going solar. They're less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don't transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. And yet, in many ways low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own energy: The proportion of their income spent on energy is about four times greater than the national median, according to federal statistics. And because lower-income households tend to use less electricity overall than higher-income households, a typical solar setup covers more of their demand. The GW study found that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a house, would cover more than half of a typical low-income household's energy needs and that if all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.

"[This is] aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country," senior White House climate advisor Brian Deese told reporters in a call yesterday.

The initiative starts by tripling the target for solar on federally subsidized housing to 300 megawatts by 2020, as well as directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to go solar. The White House also announced more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and state and local governments to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households. The initiative places particular emphasis on so-called "community" solar, in which groups of households pool resources to build and maintain a shared solar system in their neighborhood.

Some states and power companies are already angling to support solar for low-income housing. Arizona Public Service, a Phoenix-area utility, recently launched a $28.5 million program to install its own solar panels on rooftops in its service area, specifically targeting low-income households. And New York's electricity regulators recently bolstered incentives for power companies that invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Con Ed, the power company serving most of New York City, plans to spend $250 million on such upgrades in Brooklyn and Queens, as an alternative to a $1 billion upgrade to the old natural gas-fired electric grid.

The president's plan builds on a commitment he announced earlier this year to train 75,000 workers for the solar industry (which is already adding jobs 10 times faster than the overall economy). It also dovetails neatly with Obama's larger climate objectives, especially his hotly-contested plan to reduce the nation's energy-related carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, as well as the economy-wide climate targets that form the US bargaining chip for this year's UN climate negotiations in Paris.

For all those promises to work, "the question is how states and utilities can reduce their emissions, and the buildings that they serve are a critical part of that system," said Natural Resources Defense Council financial policy analyst Philip Henderson. "Making those buildings more efficient and using less energy from dirty power plants is a direct and essential way to meet those goals."    

America's BBQ Grills Create as Much Carbon as a Big Coal Plant

| Thu Jul. 2, 2015 12:48 PM EDT

As your neighbors fire up their barbecues this Independence Day, the most popular day in America to grill, they won't just send the scent of tri-tip or grilled corn over the fence in your direction—they'll also send smoke. As my colleague Kiera Butler wrote about here, even the "cleanest" gas grills emit pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour they're used. So how many emissions can we expect from dinner barbecues on the 4th?

Roughly eighty percent of American households own barbecues or smokers, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Let's say all 92.5 million of them decide to grill on Saturday. A 2013 study by HPBA found that 61 percent of users opted for gas grills, 42 percent for charcoal, and 10 percent for electric (some respondents had multiple grills). If that reflected all households across the United States, and each household used its grill for an hour on the 4th of July, then we'd get a calculation like this:

(56.425M gas grills*5.6 pounds of CO2) + (38.85M charcoal grills*11 pounds CO2) + (9.25M electric grills*15 pounds CO2 ) = 882 million pounds of CO2

That's roughly as many emissions as burning 2145 railcars of coal, or running one coal-fired power plant for a month.

But let's be honest—no one wants to give up summer grilling, and these emissions stats probably won't convince your neighbor to turn off the barbecue. You might instead offer up ideas on recipes with ingredients that are friendlier to the planet—like these 4 veggie burgers that don't suck.

Finally, a Little Good News on the California Drought Front

| Wed Jul. 1, 2015 2:47 PM EDT

Finally, some good news on the California drought beat: Californians reduced their residential water usage in May by a whopping 29 percent compared to the same month in 2013, according to a report released today by the State Water Resources Control Board. That's the steepest drop in more than a year.

Californians may have been inspired to reduce their water use by the mandatory, statewide municipal water cut of 25 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April, though those cuts didn't go into effect until June. (Those 25 percent reductions did not apply to agriculture, which uses an estimated 80 percent of the state's water, though some farmers have faced curtailments.)

"The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure, which is welcome news in the face of this dire drought," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus in a press release. "That said, we need all Californians to step up—and keep it up—as if we don’t know when it will rain and snow again, because we don't."

In May, California residents used 87.5 gallons per capita per day—three gallons per day less than the previous month. Big cities that showed the most dramatic cuts include Folsom, Fresno, and San Jose. But water use by area varies drastically, with places known for green lawns and gardens, like Coachella and Malibu, using more than 200 gallons per person per day. Outdoor water usage is estimated to account for about half of overall residential use.

Officials are cautiously optimistic. Board spokesman George Kostyrko says Californians "did great in May and we are asking them to keep doing what they are doing and work even harder to conserve water during these critical summer months and beyond."

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The Threatened Atlantic Puffins Are Nesting And It's Adorable

| Sat Jun. 27, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
Atlantic puffins chilling on a cliff.

The Atlantic puffins are back...for now. After spending much of the year on the open sea, the photogenic birds have made their annual trip to the North Atlantic shores of Maine, Newfoundland, and the United Kingdom to breed.

But as Rowan Jacobsen reported in a Mother Jones feature last summer, rising ocean temperatures have taken a huge toll on these seabirds. Cold-water thriving zooplankton, critical to the Gulf of Maine's food web, have reached their lowest numbers ever, forcing the fish that puffins feed to their young to go elsewhere for food. Without a reliable source of food, in 2013, only 10 percent of puffin pairs in burrows tracked by researchers successfully fledged chicks (normally that rate is 77 percent).

This isn't the first time puffins in Maine have faced an existential threat. After 300 years of hunting and over harvesting eggs, Atlantic puffin colonies in Maine nearly disappeared. Fortunately, a successful Audubon Society initiative in the 1970s brought them back to nesting islands off the coast of Maine; by 2013, 1,000 pairs were laying eggs there.

During the past couple of years, cold water has returned to the gulf of Maine, which is great news for the puffins. In 2014, they saw a rebound: 75 percent of chicks survived. This year they are back again and as cute as ever. You can watch them below on the Audubon's puffin live cam until August when they leave again for the ocean:

If that's not enough, below are some more photos and video of Atlantic puffins:

Randy Rimland/Shutterstock

Helen Kattai/Shutterstock
Eric Isselee/Shutterstock




Congress Doesn't Think Agricultural Sustainability Has Anything to Do With Your Health

| Fri Jun. 26, 2015 5:15 PM EDT

Every five years, the US government revisits its Dietary Guidelines—suggestions for how Americans should eat. The guidelines won't legally require you to, say, eat an apple a day, but they do affect things like agricultural subsidies and public school lunches, so they're fairly influential.

The National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the Advisory Committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise" to tackle issues of sustainability.

When the committee tasked with making scientific recommendations for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines released its report this year, it ruffled some feathers. For the first time it included concerns about the environmental issues linked to certain dietary patterns and agricultural practices—for example, how eating less meat and more plant-based foods is "more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact." Or that assuring food security might rely on creating agricultural practices that "reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."

Some lobbyists and politicians, especially those who pad their pockets with cash from Big Food and Big Ag, weren't too happy about these suggestions. As I've written in the past, the suggestion that plant-based diets might be healthier for people and the planet messes with the meat industry's bottom line, so why would they back it? In letters sent to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack over the past few months, industry groups have tried to argue that sustainability issues do not fall within the scope of the Dietary Guidelines. One letter from the National Cattleman's Beef Association argued that the advisory committee "clearly does not have the background or expertise to evaluate the complex relationship between food production and the dietary needs of a growing American and international population."

The House Appropriations Committee on Agriculture, which accepted at least $1.4 million from the food industry in 2013 and 2014, apparently caved to these complaints. It recently stuck a rider in its 2016 Agricultural Appropriations bill that would A) explicitly prohibit the upcoming Dietary Guidelines from mentioning anything other than diet and nutrient intake, and B) force the guidelines to only rely on scientific evidence that has been rated "Grade 1: Strong" by the Department of Agriculture. Politico reported on Thursday that a similar Senate agriculture appropriations rider would force any advice in the Dietary Guidelines to be "solely nutritional and dietary in nature."

In an unprecedented move, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee has shot back with a letter of its own. Health and food systems should be more closely related in the government's eyes, the committee argued. "Future food insecurity is predictable without attention to the safety, quality, cost, and sustainability of the food supply," the letter stated, adding that "the US health and public health systems are burdened with preventable health problems." In other words, to narrow the reach of the Dietary Guidelines is to ignore the connection between things like exercise and obesity, for instance, or agricultural pesticide use and disease. To read more of the DGAC's arguments, see the full letter here.

Expect the finalized Dietary Guidelines late this year. In the meantime, it looks like the DGAC isn't giving up the battle for a more holistic national framework for how people eat. They certainly have Food Politics author Marion Nestle on their side; as she summarizes on her blog:

[Members of the DGAC] were asked to review and consider the science of diet and health and did so. They reported what they believe the science says. Some segments of the food industry didn't like the science so they are using the political system to fight back. That some members of Congress would go along with this is shameful.

Why Is a Whole Foods Exec Livestreaming His Empty Office?

| Thu Jun. 25, 2015 4:36 PM EDT

Whole Foods recently announced its plan to open a new line of smaller stores called "365," and along with the news they launched a very, well, strange promotional website. If you type in you will find a webpage streaming a live cam of 365 president Jeff Turnas's desk. As of the writing of this post, the live stream has been going for some 170 hours; that's more than seven days.

If this tactic is meant to show how hard Whole Foods is working on its new, more affordable venture (amid growing competition and accusations of overcharging customers), it's not really working. We scanned through the seven days of footage and not once was the office occupied.

California Water Districts Just Sued the State Over Cuts to Farmers

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 7:39 PM EDT

Drama on the California drought front: On Friday, a group of water districts sued the State Water Resources Control Board in response to an order prohibiting some holders of senior water rights from pumping out of some lakes and rivers.

"This is our water," said Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, to KQED's Lauren Sommer. "We believe firmly in that fact and we are very vested in protecting that right."

Water allotments in the Golden State are based on a byzantine system of water rights that prioritizes senior water rights holders, defined as individuals, companies, and water districts that laid claim to the water before 1914. Typically, those with the oldest permits are the first to get water and the last to see it curtailed.

But on June 12, the state ordered the 114 senior water rights holders with permits dating back to 1903 to stop pumping water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, a normally fertile area encompassing most of northern California. "There are some that have no alternative supplies and will have to stop irrigating crops," admitted Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. "There are others that have stored water or have wells that they can fall back on. It's going to be a different story for each one and a struggle for all of them." This is the first time since 1977 that the state has enacted curtailments on senior holders.

In response, an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (which includes the Oakdale Irrigation District) has sued the state. In addition, the Patterson and Banta Carbona irrigation districts filed two separate lawsuits. The lawsuits claim the state overstepped its authority by curtailing water to districts that claimed rights to the water before the state set up a control board in 1913 to oversee water rights.

"Water right holders were here before the state exerted any authority over water," said Knell. "Most of our water rights go back to the mid-1800s. So the state having authority over something that we developed long before the state got into this business is the legal question we will be asking a judge."