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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Your couch is poisoning you

Have you been sleeping on the couch to avoid your toxic mattress? Well, stop that. Because your couch is probably poisoning you right now. Unless you're at work, in which case right when you get home.

That's the takeaway from a new study in which scientists found flame-retardant chemicals linked to cancer in 85 percent of the couches they tested. New couches were actually worse, with 93 percent testing toxic. Almost a quarter of sofas tested positive for a chemical banned from kids' clothes in the 1970s, but still allowed in mattresses and car seats. Mother Jones reports:

Read more: Living


Toxic toys may be poisoning our best friends

My favorite people to buy holiday presents for are animal people. They are always so grateful! But sometimes maybe they shouldn't be.

A new study out of Texas Tech finds that the chemicals in hard plastic bumper dog toys readily leach into dogs' mouths.

digital ramble

Dogs' chewing action stresses the chemical bonds in the plastics that comprise their toys, allowing for the leaching of hormone-mimicking bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. From Environmental Health News:

“A lot of plastic products are used for dogs, so to understand the potential for some of the chemicals to leach out from toys is a new and important area of research,” said veterinarian Safdar Khan, senior director of toxicology research at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Poison Control Center in Illinois. Dr. Khan was not involved in the current study.

Philip Smith, a toxicologist at The Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech, became interested in chemical exposures from bumpers after using them to train his own Labrador retrievers.

“Some of the dogs are exposed to plastic bumpers from the time they are born until the day they die."

Read more: Living


Fracking threatens farms and food safety

Some of our most fertile land for growing food also happens to be fertile land for blasting out tons of shale gas. You might guess who's already winning this battle.

Boris van Hoytema

The Nation reports on the effects of fracking pollution on America's farms, focusing on North Dakota cattle farmer Jackie Schilke, who farms atop Bakken Shale.

After fracking began at 32 sites within a couple miles of her ranch, Schilke's cattle started dropping dead and Schilke herself started suffering from poor health. Ambient air testing found high levels of a bunch of nasty chemical compounds associated with fracking, and with cancer and birth defects.

State health and agriculture officials acknowledged Schilke’s air and water tests but told her she had nothing to worry about. Her doctors, however, diagnosed her with neurotoxic damage and constricted airways. “I realized that this place is killing me and my cattle,” Schilke says. She began using inhalers and a nebulizer, switched to bottled water, and quit eating her own beef and the vegetables from her garden. (Schilke sells her cattle only to buyers who will finish raising them outside the shale area, where she presumes that any chemical contamination will clear after a few months.) “My health improved,” Schilke says, “but I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing to this land?’”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Polar ice sheets are melting three times faster than during the ’90s

It's worse than we thought.

From U.S. News and World Report:

All of Earth's major polar ice sheets except one have been rapidly losing mass -- several gigatonnes per year -- since 1992, accounting for about 20 percent of global sea level rise, according to a new report by multiple experts.

Scientists say this is the "clearest evidence yet" of polar ice losses, with nearly two thirds of all ice loss coming from Greenland. The only region with an increasing ice mass is Eastern Antarctica; ice sheets in west Antarctica, Greenland, and the Antarctic peninsula are melting and have caused about a half inch global sea level rise since 1992. ...

Between 1992 and 2011, Greenland lost 152 gigatonnes of ice, West Antarctica lost 65 gigatonnes, and the Antarctic Peninsula lost 20 gigatonnes. East Antarctica gained about 14 gigatonnes of ice. A gigatonne is 1 billion metric tons.

The Antarctic peninsula.

That's a combined mass equal to about three times all biomass on the Earth. The half inch of ocean rise might also help explain the recent discovery that sea levels are increasing 60 percent faster than expected.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Americans on pace to spend a record amount of money on gas this year

Americans weren't paying more for gasoline this year, but we were buying a lot more of it. So the odds are good that 2012 will set a record for the amount of money spent on fuel.

Keep it flowing, America!

From the Los Angeles Times:

The average price of a gallon of regular gasoline in the U.S. this year never reached the highs seen in 2008, when the all-time record of $4.114 was reached. The 2012 average never even climbed as high as it was last year, when it hit $3.965, according to the Energy Department.

But fuel prices have been so consistently high in 2012 that American motorists are on pace to spend more on gasoline this year -- $483 billion, or $1.32 billion a day -- than they ever have before, according to the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.

That would break the old record for the amount of money spent by Americans on gasoline, set last year, by about $12 billion. That's in spite of the fact that the U.S. average topped out this year at $3.941 a gallon back in April.

Money well spent, to be sure.


Watch every hurricane that formed during the third-most-active season in history

Here, in just shy of four and a half minutes, is the entire 2012 hurricane season. Assuming, that is, that no tropical storms crop up in the next 36 hours or so; hurricane season ends on Nov. 30.

It's pretty, in its way. Humbling, watching the patterns and the flow of the clouds as they work their way slowly around the ocean. For the planet, Sandy was just another spinning formation, made and gone and forgotten.

For us, Sandy was the capstone to what the Capital Weather Gang notes was tied for the third-most-active hurricane season in history.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Senate rejects Inhofe’s anti-biofuels amendment because it’s dumb

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). If Pavlov's research was correct, you should be rolling your eyes right now. Inhofe. Eye roll. If for some reason you aren't rolling your eyes, perhaps you don't know enough about him. He's … let's see. Imagine if you combined George W. Bush with Donald Trump with a cartoon oil baron with a spoiled 3-year-old from whom you've just taken a favorite toy. Eye roll.

Inhofe's stock in trade is climate change denialism. (For example and for example.) Representing the oil-friendly state of Oklahoma, it's no surprise. Nor was it a surprise when, earlier this year, Inhofe targeted the military's biofuels program, arguing that an effort to decrease reliance on fossil fuels should be undertaken only if the alternative is the same cost as a petroleum-based option. Which is stupid, because biofuels are trailing diesel fuel on the development and implementation cycle by, oh, a century and a half or so. There's obvious benefit to such experiments, unless you love love love oil love love love it. Which I suspect Inhofe does.


Super-rare fast-food worker strike hits NYC

Would you like to fry up pink slime all day, and still be on food stamps? Well, you're not alone. (Shocking, right?)

New York City food service workers at some of the nation's biggest, baddest chains walked off the job this morning for a super-rare one-day strike against low wages.

Workers are organizing around the Fast Food Forward campaign at dozens of McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Domino's, and Papa John's locations city-wide, in an industry that has traditionally been devoid of if not outright hostile to union power. As Josh Eidelson at Salon reports, one 79-year-old McDonald's worker has already been suspended this week for signing up coworkers to the campaign's petition. From Salon:

New York Communities for Change organizing director Jonathan Westin told Salon the current effort is “the biggest organizing campaign that’s happened in the fast food industry.” A team of 40 NYCC organizers have been meeting with workers for months, spearheading efforts to form a new union, the Fast Food Workers Committee. NYCC organizers and fast food workers have been signing up employees on petitions demanding both the chance to organize a union without retaliation and a hefty raise, from near-minimum wages to $15 an hour.

Striking workers detailed strict working conditions and verbal abuse while on the job. Their current wages -- $8.90/hour median in New York City, where the $7.25/hour federal minimum reigns supreme -- don't reflect the economic realities of the booming U.S. fast-food industry. Apparently recession America has a taste for Happy Meals.

Read more: Food


As another coal mine closes, the government says to expect more closures in the future

Peabody Energy announced yesterday that it was closing its Willow Lake coal mine, a facility that employed around 400 people in southern Illinois. Earlier this month, one of those employees was killed by a piece of mining equipment, a factor cited in the closure. But the reason coal companies like Peabody are shutting down mines and declaring bankruptcy is simpler: economics.

I wrote a piece earlier this week at that is sort of a beginner's guide to why coal is doomed over the long term. It is called "Coal Is Doomed," just to get the point across. The argument, in short: Coal is both unhealthy (over the short and long term) and getting less cheap compared to natural gas and renewables. To be even passably healthy, use of coal needs to get more expensive. Even the industry acknowledges the need to be cleaner. And that's the game. (The full piece is a lot more words, so you should go read that, at some point.)

Farewell, my friends.

The Peabody closure is still on the leading edge of coal's decline and may in fact be an outlier. But a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office [PDF] largely echoes the argument above: Coal is slipping, badly.


Potential secretary of state candidate Susan Rice faces questions over TransCanada investments

Yesterday, the Natural Resources Defense Council's OnEarth magazine dropped a bombshell. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, widely rumored to be the leading contender to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, has large investments in both TransCanada, the company seeking to build the Keystone XL pipeline, and other businesses with a stake in seeing it built. The secretary of state, you may remember, is responsible for granting any permit to build the border-crossing pipeline.

In addition to TransCanada stock valued between $300,000 and $600,000, OnEarth outlines the breadth of her investments.

[A]ccording to financial disclosure reports, about a third of Rice’s personal net worth is tied up in oil producers, pipeline operators, and related energy industries north of the 49th parallel -- including companies with poor environmental and safety records on both U.S. and Canadian soil. Rice and her husband own at least $1.25 million worth of stock in four of Canada’s eight leading oil producers, as ranked by Forbes magazine. That includes Enbridge, which spilled more than a million gallons of toxic bitumen into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010 -- the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Rice also has smaller stakes in several other big Canadian energy firms, as well as the country’s transportation companies and coal-fired utilities. Another 20 percent or so of her personal wealth is derived from investments in five Canadian banks. These are some of the institutions that provide loans and financial backing to TransCanada and its competitors for tar sands extraction and major infrastructure projects, such as Keystone XL and Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would stretch 700 miles from Alberta to the Canadian coast.

Susan Rice and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

OnEarth then describes the possible conflict: