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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Global life expectancies increase as infectious diseases and hunger wane

Across the world, people are living longer.

Which is good news, of course! Don't want people dying. And the increase is due largely to improvements in public health programs and access to food. From The New York Times:

A sharp decline in deaths from malnutrition and infectious diseases like measles and tuberculosis has caused a shift in global mortality patterns over the past 20 years, according to a report published on Thursday, with far more of the world’s population now living into old age and dying from diseases mostly associated with rich countries, like cancer and heart disease.

The shift reflects improvements in sanitation, medical services and access to food throughout the developing world, as well as the success of broad public health efforts like vaccine programs. The results are striking: infant mortality declined by more than half from 1990 to 2010, and malnutrition, the No. 1 risk factor for death and years of life lost in 1990, has fallen to No. 8.

At the same time, chronic diseases like cancer now account for about two out of every three deaths worldwide, up from just over half in 1990. Eight million people died of cancer in 2010, 38 percent more than in 1990. Diabetes claimed 1.3 million lives in 2010, double the number in 1990.

Distributing mosquito nets in the Congo
Distributing mosquito nets in the Congo.

As the Times notes, 33 percent of global deaths in 1990 were of people 70 or older. In 2010, that figure was 43 percent.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Idiot misinterprets draft U.N. climate report, shares his idiocy with the world

Next September, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its fifth report compiling the scientific evidence of climate change. But, if you're impatient, you can read it today, thanks to a buffoon associated with a buffoon-clogged website committed to undermining climate change. (We choose not to link to said site because fuck them.)

From The Guardian:

The fifth assessment report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is not due to be published in full until September 2013, was uploaded onto [yet another buffoon-clogged website] on Thursday and has since been mirrored elsewhere on the internet. Several scientists who helped to write the report have confirmed that the draft is genuine.

A little-known US-based climate sceptic called Alex Rawls, who had been accepted by the IPCC to be one of the report's 800 expert reviewers, admitted to leaking the document.

As the Huffington Post puts it, this "raises questions about the process." Um, yeah. I'd say. Hey, U.N.? Here's a tip: Maybe don't give review copies of important, complex documents to dingbat deniers. Go ahead and write that down; I'll wait.



Midwestern cities are setting new records for days without snow

Even this snowman is optimistic.
Even hoping for a snowman this large is optimistic.

Having lived in a snowy region, I certainly understand that snowfall can be a pain in the ass. It's great while falling, to a point, and great when sitting in large drifts in the yard preventing egress to school and/or work, and then terrible when you have to shovel it or see it in dark, muddy piles by the side of the road or struggle out into it to go to school and/or work.

So this news is a mixed blessing: Cities across the Midwest are setting new records for the number of consecutive days without measurable snowfall.

Chicago is the most notable entrant on the new records list. The city is now in its 285th straight day without accumulation -- passing the record of 280 set in 1994. (City government isn't complaining, given how much it is saving on snow removal.) Champaign-Urbana, Ill., is at about 283. Lincoln and Omaha, Neb., are both in the low 300s. Des Moines broke a record set in 1889, entering its 285th day today.

Snowfall over the last 72 hours.
Snowfall over the last 72 hours.
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Tiny twisters could power your town — someday

You thought you were cool with your wind turbines, hippies? Canadian inventor Louis Michaud sees your wind turbines and raises you a freaking tornado.


Yes, climate change may be unleashing monster tornadoes upon us now, but those aren't the tornadoes Michaud wants to "control and exploit." Today the inventor won a grant through the Thiel Foundation's "revolutionary" Breakout Labs to develop power-generating twisters.

The Toronto Star reports:

[B]y today’s measure, Michaud’s idea is the definition of radical. Through his company AVEtec — the AVE standing for “atmospheric vortex engine” — the long-term plan is to take waste heat from a thermal power plant or industrial facility and use it to create a controllable twister that can generate electricity.

Here’s how it works: Waste heat is blown at an angle into a large circular structure, creating a flow of spinning hot air. We all know heat travels upward and as it does it spins itself into a rising vortex.

The higher the twister grows, the greater the temperature differential between top and bottom, creating stronger and stronger convective forces that act like fuel for the vortex, eventually allowing it to take on a life of its own.


Pesticide chemicals linked to food allergies

You may not be at all surprised to learn that pesticides are bad for us. No, but, like, really bad.


A couple of months ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned about the effects of pesticides on kids. Today's kids have grown up with a new normal of pesticide-laden food and increased food allergies (up 18 percent in the U.S. between 1997 and 2007). According to a new study, those two things might be connected. From Mother Earth News:

The study reported that high levels of dichlorophenols, a chemical used in pesticides and to chlorinate water, when found in the human body, are associated with food allergies.

"Our research shows that high levels of dichlorophenol-containing pesticides can possibly weaken food tolerance in some people, causing food allergy," said allergist Elina Jerschow, M.D., M.Sc., ACAAI fellow and lead study author. "This chemical is commonly found in pesticides used by farmers and consumer insect and weed control products, as well as tap water ...

"Previous studies have shown that both food allergies and environmental pollution are increasing in the United States," said Dr. Jerschow. "The results of our study suggest these two trends might be linked, and that increased use of pesticides and other chemicals is associated with a higher prevalence of food allergies."

Eat all the organic apples you want, but there's no escaping pesticides. The New York Times' Mark Bittman had some strong words about that this week:

Read more: Food, Living


Seven states, led by New York, sue EPA over methane from oil and gas drilling

One of the benefits of being an elected official in a bright blue state, a state so blue that it casts a pale blue glow over its neighbors, is that you can be pretty aggressively liberal. New York state has a proud tradition of such politicians (as well as some less aggressive ones) -- particularly those politicians ensconced as state attorney general.

Ten years ago, the state's attorney general was a gentleman named Eliot Spitzer. Spitzer basically created the role of the crusading AG, running hard against Wall Street, prostitution (ahem), and pollution. When he wasn't at the office, he was at home with his wife Silda, because he is a family man. Spitzer was succeeded in his role by Andrew Cuomo, who went after student loans and violations of privacy by police. In January 2011, when Cuomo became governor, the AG position was assumed by Eric Schneiderman -- who has taken up the activist tradition with gusto.

Schneiderman, during his campaign for attorney general
Schneiderman, during his campaign for attorney general.

Last May, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking to force an environmental review of fracking. That lawsuit was tossed out. So today, Schneiderman is trying a different route. From his website:

Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, leading a coalition of seven states, today notified the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of his intent to sue the Agency for violating the Clean Air Act by failing to address methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry. …


New Yorkers create three pounds of garbage per person per day

Twelve years ago, New York City residents created nearly four pounds of garbage per person per day. It was broken down as follows:

  • 27 percent thin pizza crusts
  • 20 percent tourists
  • 18 percent surliness
  • 14 percent unused Mets tickets
  • 11 percent lox
  • 6 percent rejected New York Post headline ideas
  • 4 percent ticker tape

Today, good news: The figure has declined to less than three pounds a day, about 12 ounces of which is recycled material. That's an estimated drop from 32 million pounds of garbage a day to 25 million pounds.

Not that the city is all that happy about it. From The New York Times:

While that’s the lowest amount since at least 2000, the cost of collecting and disposing of the garbage has remained relatively constant, ranging from a low of about 70 cents [per person per day] in 2002 to a high of more than 80 cents in 2008. In 2012, the average cost per person daily was about 75 cents. The cost figures are all in 2012 dollars.

Refuse accounts for most of the garbage, but recycling, which is more expensive per pound, makes up nearly half the daily expenditure.

Click to embiggen.
Independent Budget Office
Click to embiggen.
Read more: Cities, Living


How eco-awful is your Christmas tree? Experts are split

Ohhhh, Christmas tree.


We may be engaging in a fierce war on Christmas right now, but y'all know we love trees -- even the Christmas kind! Well, wait, maybe.

From The Washington Post:

Christmas trees play into a wider debate among environmentalists: Are tree farms better or worse at carbon sequestration than untouched forests?

The answer may surprise you: A study on North Carolina tree farms published last month looked at the farms' unique ability to sequester and soak up a whole lot of atmospheric carbon.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Coming soon to a horror movie near you: Antarctica is being invaded by king crabs

King Crab

The Antarctic is being invaded by king crabs -- and, somewhat ironically, it's because they survive better in warmer water.

From Nature:

Cold temperatures have kept crabs out of Antarctic seas for 30 million years. But warm water from the ocean depths is now intruding onto the continental shelf, and seems to be changing the delicate ecological balance. An analysis by [marine ecologist Craig] Smith and his colleagues suggests that 1.5 million crabs already inhabit Palmer Deep, [a] sea-floor valley ... And native organisms have few ways of defending themselves. “There are no hard-shell-crushing predators in Antarctica,” says Smith. “When these come in they're going to wipe out a whole bunch of endemic species.”

Scientists are asking for volunteers to help stem the invasion; the research team will provide melted butter and nutcrackers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Ohio fights a multi-front war against blight

Good samaritans in Ohio may be getting a reprieve from potential misdemeanor charges.

Today the state House is voting on a bill that would allow people to clean up vacant, blighted properties without fear of a trespassing charge. This measure essentially gives residents more power to improve their neighborhoods, harnessing NIMBY instincts for good. From The Columbus Dispatch:

Some residents hesitate to take care of the properties around them because they risk trespassing charges, said Tiffany Sokol, office manager of the nonprofit Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., which boards up and cleans up vacant properties. The bill would allow individuals to clean up blighted land or buildings that have clearly been abandoned.

“Very ugly, nasty places,” [said Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D), the bill’s sponsor]. “These properties are an eyesore, a danger to their neighbors.”

East Cleveland
Blight in East Cleveland.

The Rust Belt is only getting rustier, and Ohio communities have tried a number of strategies to fight neighborhood blight. Yesterday, The Columbus Dispatch and a city website published the names of negligent owners of more than 100 blighted properties. The city called it a fight for neighborhoods.

City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said anything is worth a try.

“If it gets their attention, good,” he said.

Read more: Cities