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That new-car smell is making Hurricane Katrina survivors sick

man-car-headache-flickr
Guian Bolisay

New-car smell reminds you that you get to be the first person EVER to spill Doritos crumbs into the long-lost valleys of seat cushions; YOUR library books will be the first to get irrevocably stuck under the passenger seat. Unfortunately it also means you’re breathing in a bouquet of chemicals, including formaldehyde.

The scent's not that dangerous in a car, Oxford anthropologist Nick Shapiro told The New Republic, because most people don’t live in their cars. It’s much more toxic in the brand new mobile homes FEMA distributed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The poorly ventilated FEMA trailers have “the new car smell times 10,” as one trailer resident puts it.

Formaldehyde is just one part of the chemical soup comprising the iconic new-car smell -- plasticizers also play a role -- but it IS a carcinogen. Shapiro describes the toll the scent is taking on health:

Read more: Living

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Can this coal plant save the climate?

Climate Desk coal
Climate Desk

This story was written by the Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg. It was originally published in the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk initiative. The video was produced by Climate Desk’Tim McDonnell.

The massive block of steel towers and pipes rises out of the morning fog like a sci-fi fantasy. But this coal-fired power plant could help save the climate, or at least that's the hope of the Obama administration.

The plant in Mississippi was repeatedly invoked by the Environmental Protection Agency to justify sweeping new climate change rules. When it comes online later this year, Kemper will be the first power plant in the U.S. capable of capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions.

The EPA says the Kemper County Energy Facility offers a real-life example that it is possible to go on burning the dirtiest of fossil fuels and still make the cuts in carbon dioxide emissions needed to avoid a climate catastrophe.

But with staggering costs -- $5 billion and rising -- and pushback from industry and environmental groups who say carbon capture is an unproven technology, now even the company that built Kemper is having second thoughts about the future of "clean coal."

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Gold-medal skier Ted Ligety raps with a snowflake to save winter

talking-snowflake

Shit just got real in the climate fight, people. Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project has teamed up with the company founded by legendary ski movie maker Warren Miller to bring you “I am Pro Snow,” an effort to save the white dust that has kept Miller and his protégés busy -- and skiers and boarders coming back for their cinematic antics and epic powder shots -- for decades.

Here’s the latest Pro Snow video, featuring one of our highest profile snow pros -- Ted Ligety, who just won his gajillionth gold medal in Sochi, Russia -- rocking the thigh drums with a slightly depressed cartoon snowflake.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Watch a pangolin play in the mud like a puppy

Pangolins are shy, scaled African anteaters that heartless people will pay hundreds of dollars to eat. (They sort of resemble artichokes with legs, but that’s no excuse.) But even though they look like metallic pinecones that belong in a sci-fi film, all they want to do is roll around in the mud like a giddy pup. Watch the cuteness:

The footage is courtesy of the Rare and Endangered Species Trust, which filmed the pangolin in Namibia. Eight species of the mammal exist in Asia and Africa, but they’re quickly dwindling due to poachers, as Chinese medicine makes use of their scales. (What else is new? Sob!) This playful pangolin’s antics may serve a useful purpose, according to Earth Touch:

[H]e may be rolling in the mud for more than just fun. The mud may help with fighting parasites in between the pangolin's scales as well as cooling him down.

Read more: Living

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Wish you could fertilize crops with pee? Urine luck

Seth True of Best Septic Service, LLC, pumps urine from a 275-gallon tank for transfer to the farm. A family of three can produce this much urine in eight months.
Abe Noe-Hays, Rich Earth Institute

“When are you going to start bringing pee out to the farm?” Jay Bailey, a local farmer, asked Abe Noe-Hays when they ran into each other at the hardware store in Battleboro, Vt. “Um, how about now? Noe-Hays had just teamed up with Kim Nace to form the Rich Earth Institute, an organization that separates out pee to use as fertilizer for local farms --  "peecycling" to those in the know. All they needed was a test field. “[Using urine as fertilizer] is such low-hanging fruit in terms of sustainability,” Nace says. ”There’s so much energy wasted at fertilizer plants …

Read more: Food, Living

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Attn. babies: Don’t be born poor and black in North Carolina

poor-kid-graffiti
Julio Martínez

In North Carolina, scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency have found a "stable and negative association" between poor birth outcomes among women and their exposure to air pollution. That's pretty much common knowledge, if not common sense, no matter what state or country you look at. But the EPA scientists also noted that "more socially disadvantaged populations are at a greater risk," even when subjected to the same levels of air pollutants.

Translation: If you have the misfortune of being born poor and black in North Carolina, you’re more likely to arrive in this world underweight and undernourished, on top of being underprivileged. Polluted air only makes your situation worse.

Read more: Cities

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Want everyone else to buy into environmentalism? Never say “Earth”

earth-pacific-nasa
NASA

For over three decades, David Fenton has played an unusual role in the environmental movement: marketing it. The company he founded, Fenton Communications, has worked with everyone from Nelson Mandela to MoveOn.org. It recently managed an anti-fracking campaign for Yoko Ono (fracking, it promised, would ruin New York’s groundwater, and therefore its bagels and pizza).

David Fenton
David Fenton.

To many environmentalists, what Fenton does -- with all the celebrity chefs and celebrities, period -- is ... a little bit simplistic. To his opponents, he’s the Great Satan. If you find an article about him online, it’s probably a hit piece.

“People working in the nonprofit world sometimes have trouble adopting a marketing mindset,” Fenton Communications wrote in a 2009 report.  “But in the end, the goal is for people to 'buy' our ideas -- ideas for a better world.”

Fenton recently talked with me over the phone about why he avoids the words "planet" and "Earth," why millennials are perfectly justified in abandoning the word "environmentalist," and more.

Q. So you started out as a photographer, and later as a PR person for Rolling Stone. What was your first environmental campaign?

A. The No Nukes concert in 1979 with Bruce Springsteen. Thirty-five years ago. Five nights of concerts in Madison Square Garden, plus an album and a motion picture. It definitely helped mobilize popular culture against nuclear power in that era.

That’s one thing the environmental movement still doesn’t do -- use popular culture. There are moments, but systematically, the environmental movement tends to be at the institutional level -- academics and lawyers and scientists and policy people. Popular culture as a means of communication is not in their DNA.

Really, communications, period, is not in their DNA. If you look at the budgets of environmental groups, only teeny tiny portions are spent on communications. And if you remove the portions spent on building membership and fundraising, it’s even less. It’s better than it was. When I started, environmental groups barely had press secretaries. They certainly have that now.

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Don’t worry: Your rail trail is (probably) safe

rails-to-trails trail
Ed Brownson

Rail trails -- the biking and walking paths that have sprouted up on disused railroad lines over the last couple of decades -- can be beautiful and popular public spaces. The Capital Crescent Trail on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., for example, passes scenic waterfronts and is packed on sunny weekend afternoons. As cars and trucks displaced passenger and freight rail in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, abandoned rail lines fell into disrepair and became an eyesore. In 1983, Congress passed the “Rails-to-Trails Act.” Since then, the federal government has worked with rail companies and the communities traversed by tracks to reclaim these spaces for the public. Some 20,000 miles of rail trails have been established, with more constantly in development.

So it was alarming news for trail advocates when the Supreme Court ruled 8-to-1 on Monday in favor of a private property owner, and against the federal government, on the question of who owns the rail-line right-of-way on his property. The media headlines made it sound like a dramatic defeat: “U.S. justices deliver blow to 'rails-to-trails' policy,” from Reuters, was typical.

It was indeed a bad ruling for rail trail enthusiasts. But relax! The effect will be very limited.

Read more: Cities, Politics

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San Francisco moves to ban plastic water bottles, scoffs at every other sad city

plastic-water-bottles
Shutterstock

Two big pieces of news out of San Francisco this week: Barry Bonds started a brief stint coaching for the Giants, and the city made significant progress toward outlawing plastic water bottles. As a result, the average level of self-satisfaction exhibited by San Franciscans increased by a factor of three.

And that's just from Bonds' ego! Did you really think we were going to shame a city for striving to be more environmentally conscious? Not that we’re ruling out that San Francisco might have done it just a little bit to make every other American city look even worse. (Oh, come on! You were thinking it too!) Still, this is downright cheery news.

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Talk talk: Political junkies discuss Senate chat on climate

When the Senate pulls an all-nighter, the world listens. Or do they? Grist's Ben Adler joined HuffPost Live Host Alyona Minkovski, along with Neil Bhatiya of The Century Foundation and 350.org's Jamie Henn, to talk about whether the congressional confab was just a publicity stunt -- or if it could lead to some meaningful action. Watch here:

Also: Check out the best one-liners from the Senate sleepover.