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New July 2013

The week in GIFs: Mark Ruffalo edition

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Mark Ruffalo won our “Who’s your fave green celeb” poll, plus we’re way overdue to stare at gifs of him. Power plants lost their legal bid to douse you with mercury: TumblrThere’s now a gnat named after Bill McKibben: TumblrThe IPCC report was censored: Fracking can make you sick in a number of different ways: TumblrVermont is about to mandate GMO labels on food: GiphyAir pollution disproportionately affects people of color (even though they aren’t causing as much of it): TumblrAirbnb can make your dreams of running a brothel come true: TumblrThanks for being awesome, Ruff. GiphyFiled under: Living

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BP claims mission accomplished in Gulf cleanup; Coast Guard begs to differ

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BP this week metaphorically hung a “mission accomplished” banner over the Gulf of Mexico ecosystems that it wrecked when the Deepwater Horizon oil well blew up and spewed 200 million gallons of oil in 2010. Funny thing, though: BP isn’t the commander of the cleanup operation. The Coast Guard is. And it’s calling bullshit. Here’s what BP said in a press statement on Tuesday, nearly four years after the blowout: “The U.S. Coast Guard today ended patrols and operations on the final three shoreline miles in Louisiana, bringing to a close the extensive four-year active cleanup of the Gulf Coast following the Deepwater Horizon accident. These operations ended in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi in June 2013.” Helpful though it may have seemed for BP to speak on behalf of the federal government, the Coast Guard took some umbrage. From The Washington Post: Coast Guard Capt. Thomas Sparks, the federal on-scene coordinator of the Deepwater Horizon response, sought to stress that the switch to what he called a “middle response” process “does not end cleanup operations.” “Our response posture has evolved to target re-oiling events on coastline segments that were previously cleaned,” said Sparks. “But let me be absolutely clear: This response is not over — not by a long shot.” The Gulf Restoration Network tried to explain the semantics behind BP’s deceptive statement. “When oil washes up on shore, BP is no longer automatically obliged to go out there and clean up the mess,” spokesperson Raleigh Hoke said. “Now the onus is on the public, and state and federal governments to find the oil and then call BP in.” We get why BP would wish that the cleanup were over. The efforts have already cost $14 billion — a fraction of the $42 billion that the company expects to pay out in fines, compensation claims, and other costs related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It’s a nightmare that we all wish were over — but wishes and rhetoric do not remove poisons from an ecosystem.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

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Get a load of this: It’s not poor people whose nostrils get the dirtiest air. It’s people of color — even wealthy ones. It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress: When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles. Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities: [T]hat’s still a subject for further investigation; [U-Minnesota Professor Julian] Marshall notes that one theory is that more non-whites tend to live in pollution-rich downtown areas and near freeways. The difference isn’t unique to New York and L.A. — it’s true even in the Midwest. The researchers specifically call out Michigan and Wisconsin as places where policymakers should take their findings into account and use air pollution regulations to stem inequality. Lowering people of color’s NO2 exposure to that of white people would prevent 7,000 heart attack deaths every year, the researchers write. Since air pollution is the No. 1 environmental health risk around the world, killing 7 million people annually, it’s pretty significant that people of color are disproportionately affected. It’s yet another reminder that our ideal clean-air, clean-water, bike-safe future’s gotta include gender, racial, and class equality. Onward!Filed under: Cities, Climate & Energy, Living

Continue reading People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

Here’s what fracking can do to your health

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If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn’t the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it’s what could happen to you when you drink it. Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it’s widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It’s also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere. So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that “fracking kills”? The answer to that second question is probably not, especially in the short term and if you don’t work on or live across the street from a frack site (which, of course, some people in fact do). But that doesn’t mean it’s okay to start fracking away next to kindergartens and nursing homes: Gas extraction produces a range of potentially health-endangering pollutants at nearly every stage of the process, according to a new paper by the California nonprofit Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, released today in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal published by the National Institutes of Health. The study compiled existing, peer-reviewed literature on the health risks of shale gas drilling and found that leaks, poor wastewater management, and air emissions have released harmful chemicals into the air and water around fracking sites nationwide. “It’s clear that the closer you are, the more elevated your risk,” said lead author Seth Shonkoff, a visiting public health scholar at the University of California-Berkeley. “We can conclude that this process has not been shown to be safe.” Shonkoff cautioned that existing research has focused on cataloging risks, rather than linking specific instances of disease to particular drilling operations — primarily because the fracking boom is so new that long-term studies of, say, cancer rates, simply haven’t been done. But as the United States and the world double down on natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal (as this week’s U.N. climate change solutions report suggests), Shonkoff argues policymakers need to be aware of what a slew of fracked wells could mean for the health of those who live near them. Even given the risks involved in producing natural gas, it’s still a much healthier fuel source than coal; particulate pollution from coal plants killed an estimated 13,000 Americans in 2010, while a recent World Health Organization study named air pollution (to which coal burning is a chief contributor) the single deadliest environmental hazard on earth. Still, how exactly could gas drilling make you ill? Let us count the ways: Air pollution near wells: Near gas wells, studies have found both carcinogenic and other hazardous air pollutants in concentrations above EPA guidelines, with the pollution at its worst within a half-mile radius of the well. In one Colorado study, some of the airborne pollutants were endocrine disrupters, which screw with fetal and early childhood development. Several studies also found precursors to ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular disease. Silica sand, which is used to prop open underground cracks and which can cause pulmonary disease and lung cancer, was also found in the air around well sites; one study of 111 well samples found silica concentrations in excess of OSHA guidelines at 51.4 percent of them. Recycled frack water: About a third of the water/chemical/sand mixture that gets pumped into wells flows back up, bringing back not just the toxic fracking chemicals but other goodies from deep underground, including heavy metals like lead and arsenic. Some of this wastewater is treated and recycled for irrigation and agriculture or dumped back into lakes and rivers. Multiple studies found that because the menu of chemicals is so diverse, treatment is often incomplete and has the potential to pollute drinking water supplies with chemicals linked to everything from eye irritation to nervous system damage to cancer, as well as the potential to poison fish. Even if wastewater is contained, spills can be a problem: One Colorado study counted 77 fracking wastewater spills that impacted groundwater supplies, of which 90 percent were contaminated with unsafe levels of benzene. Broken wells: Drinking water supplies can also be contaminated when the cement casings around wells crack and leak, which studies estimate to happen in anywhere from 2 to 50 percent of all wells (including oil wells, offshore rigs, etc.). Methane getting into drinking water wells from leaky gas wells is the prime suspect in Pennsylvania’s flammable faucets; a study there last year found some methane in 82 percent of water wells sampled but concluded that concentrations were six times higher for water wells within one kilometer of a fracking well. A Texas study found elevated levels of arsenic at water wells within three kilometers of gas wells. (While the Texas study linked the contamination to gas extraction in general, it was unclear what specific part of the process was responsible). Many of these issues could be improved with engineering advancements, like gadgets that monitor for leaks and capture gas emissions, or hardier cement. Regulation can also play a role: Just yesterday, the EPA released a series of reports on methane emissions that could eventually inform restrictions on them as part of President Obama’s climate plan. This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Filed under: Business & Technology, Climate & Energy

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

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You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a “dash for gas” as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available. The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced” by replacing coal-fired power plants with “highly efficient” natural gas–burning alternatives — a move that “may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources.” But that’s only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are “low” — which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC’s energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has “created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health.” To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at “low levels” requires a “fundamental transformation of the energy supply system,” the IPCC says. Overall, its latest report concludes that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by midcentury, and stop producing any such pollution by the turn of the century, if we’re to keeping warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.7 F. And nothing is more important in meeting those goals than revolutionizing the way we produce electricity. Humanity’s thirst for electricity is the biggest single cause of climate change, with the energy sector fueling a little more than a third of global warming. Wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable forms of energy account for a little more than half of all new generating capacity being built around the world, the report says. But that is not enough. The report notes that renewable energy still requires government support, such as renewable portfolio standards and prices and caps on carbon emissions. But, as desperately as we need to be curbing fossil-fuel burning, we just keep increasing it instead. Greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector rose 3.1 percent every year from 2001 to 2010. In the 1990s, they rose just 1.7 percent annually. “The main contributors to this trend were a higher energy demand associated with rapid economic growth and an increase of the share of coal in the global fuel mix,” the report states. Of course, slaking our thirst for electricity with renewables wouldn’t just be good for the climate. The energy chapter highlights “co-benefits” from the use of renewable energy, “such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.” A revolution doesn’t sound so scary when you put it that way.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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At UN climate talks, many seek sterner warnings of economic risks

Projected economic losses omit catastrophic risk; risks include runaway ice melt, coral reef collapse

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Most Chinese Cities Fail Minimum Air Quality Standards, Study Says

Only three of 74 cities monitored managed to meet standards set by the government, with most of the polluted cities in northern China.

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Kangaroo farts could help slow climate change

Not only are kangaroos cuter than cows — those built-in overalls! — but their farts contain way less planet-warming methane. (They aren’t totally methane-free, as scientists once thought, but the amount per food unit is about 80 percent less than cows.) And scientists think the intricacies of kangaroos’ bacteria-rich guts could help them figure out how to cool the planet. A new study by Australian researchers in The ISME Journal explores the kangaroo foregut and forestomach, traditionally understood as where marsupial foresandwiches go. Specifically, scientists found that the bacteria Blautia coccoides and types of Prevotella, Oscillibacter, and Streptococcus help kangaroos metabolize carbon dioxide and hydrogen. As a result, kangas’ gas is mostly acetate, not methane. It’s not quite as simple as getting cows to avoid beans, the magical fruit, but this research and the rest of the marsupial fart canon could help scientists tweak cow diets to make their farts low-methane. Kangaroo toots may smell like a gross blend of cheese and vinegar, but at least they’re fairly eco-friendly. Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living

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Now you can get raw milk from a vending machine

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What if buying fresh milk from local cows was as easy as getting a Sprite? It is in Europe, of course (an entire continent seemingly dedicated to inspiring jealousy). Modern Farmer reports that raw milk vending machines are commonplace in countries like France, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Expat Rebecca McCray raves that not only do local farmers own all of Slovenia’s raw milk vending machines, or mlekomats, but the unpasteurized stuff simply tastes better: [T]he unskimmed milk from the mlekomat is utterly unrecognizable compared with the bluish, watery counterpart I bought in the U.S. True that. Skim milk is nobody’s idea of a good time. Of course, there are some problems with quality control. Mlekomats automatically stop selling milk if it hits an unsafe temperature — even texting the vending machine owner a real-time alert! — but as Rutgers Professor Don Schaffner told Modern Farmer, some pathogens can thrive even if the milk is refrigerated. (Exhibit A: Italy’s problems with raw milk pathogens.) Sure, drinking raw milk could kill you. But cigarettes can too, and they’re still in vending machines across America.Filed under: Food, Living

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Overhaul of emergency NHS targets

A major overhaul of the way ambulance service and A&E department performance in Wales is monitored and measured will be trialled next month.

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America, Inc. at it’s Finest

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Bren-Books.com, Modern first editions and collectible fiction<

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New July 2013