Month: October 2007

Canada loves asbestos (in third world lungs)

In a normal world, when something is severely restricted in your country, you would not export it to another country under the pretense that used under certain, very restricted conditions, your product only causes a moderate increase in cancer.

While the federal government projects an image of being a helpful, international Boy Scout on issues ranging from peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation, Canada has a peculiar relationship to asbestos. Asbestos shame

But we don’t live in a normal world, because asbestos is exported from Canada to India where it is added to cement.

Tushar Joshi, a noted New Delhi occupational health expert, is flabbergasted over asbestos sales by a country of Canada’s stature. “As a developed country, you expect more civilized behaviour,” Dr. Joshi says. Canada’s activities are “beyond comprehension,” he adds, calling Ottawa’s promotion of asbestos “a black spot on a sparkling white dress.”

yes, well said. It is very mysterious that asbestos use in India went up in the 1980s just as evidence about its incredibly destructive effects on respiratory systems had curtailed use in most of the first world. Clearly, third world lungs are not as important as Canadian lungs.

Asbestos is one area where Canada lags even behind the US. And Canada’s environmental practices are going to come under increasing scrutiny as climate change unfreezes the great white North and exposes the resources underneath.

Canada, the world is watching.

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Tehelka Stings Hindu fundamentalists


Big news out of India in the last few days. Tehelka has posted plenty of video of what they say are the results of a six month operation investigating the Gujarat riots of 2002, in which an estimated 2000 people, mostly Muslims were killed. The state government led by Narendra Modi of the BJP looked the other way for the most part and was accused of inciting, even planning the violence.

These videos are hidden camera interviews with people in the VIshwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and various other Hindu fundamentalist and extremist groups that do they BJP’s dirty work. They tell the story that the government had more than a passive hand in the riots. Not that this was not obvious to anyone with even a little bit of familiarity with goings on in Gujarat, but it is good to have all this information catalogued on YouTube in all its gory detail.

Pass the Roti has more on this story…

The oceans cannot absorb infinite amounts of CO2

While North Carolina and most of the South of the US reels under drought like conditions and the local newspaper is filled with all kinds of stories about water shortages, this one sentence, steeped in science-speak has caught the attention of climate scientists and general climate change worriers.

The third process is indicated by increasing evidence (P =0.89) for a long-term (50-year) increase in the airborne fraction (AF) of CO2 emissions, implying a decline in the efficiency of CO2 sinks on land and oceans in absorbing anthropogenic emissions.

Huh? What they’re saying is that while increasing CO2 emissions are rightfully blamed for the bulk of global warming, a not insignificant (18% to be precise) percentage can be linked to the fact that the oceans just are not absorbing CO2 at the rate that they used to. The reasons are yet unclear, but the trend can definitely be seen.


The noise in the data is clear indication that there are many natural factors that greatly influence this uptake. But recent observational studies (not a free paper, look up reference 2, so I won’t link to it) in the North Atlantic are backing up this trend.

The reasons could be as simple as decreasing solubility with increasing temperature, or with increasing ocean acidity, who knows. But it points in the general direction of our climate models being in danger of underestimating climate change effects.

What does this mean for climate research? Well, there was a really interesting paper out in Science today (Reference 3, not free!) talking about the uncertainties in climate change estimates. The best guess (95% confidence interval) is between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius rise in temperature with doubling of CO2 levels in the atmosphere. But the probability graph around this estimate is not symmetrical, it has a long tail towards the right (>4.5 degrees). The paper discusses why this uncertainty is not related to model limitations, but is an inherent feature of the way climate change processes work, through non-linear feedbacks and multiplying processes.

What these observations tell us is that uncertainty in climate estimates is not a bug, it’s a feature and will never go away. Also, all the uncertainty is on the wrong side, meaning we’re always in danger of underestimating climate change. There goes one more excuse for not tackling climate change with all the urgency it deserves.

We will never predict how bad it will be, we only know it will be pretty bad, possibly worse.

1) Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks — Canadell et al., 10.1073/pnas.0702737104 — Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

2) Schuster, U., and A. J. Watson (2007), A variable and decreasing sink for atmospheric CO2 in the North Atlantic, J. Geophys. Res., doi:10.1029/2006JC003941, in press.

3) Gerard H. Roe and Marcia B. Baker (26 October 2007) Why Is Climate Sensitivity So Unpredictable?Science 318 (5850), 629. [DOI: 10.1126/science.1144735]

Why regulation is not a bad thing.

Not always a fan of Monbiot, but this OP-ED piece on the government bailout of a British bank run by a libertarian intellectual contains in it, a passage that deserves to be framed.

Wherever modern humans, living outside the narrow social mores of the clan, are allowed to pursue their genetic interests without constraint, they will hurt other people. They will grab other people’s resources, they will dump their waste in other people’s habitats, they will cheat, lie, steal and kill. And if they have power and weapons, no one will be able to stop them except those with more power and better weapons. Our genetic inheritance makes us smart enough to see that when the old society breaks down, we should appease those who are more powerful than ourselves and exploit those who are less powerful. The survival strategies that once ensured cooperation among equals now ensure subservience to those who have broken the social contract.

Now, that is a cogent argument for regulation if I ever saw one.

(Via Nanopolitan.)

White House edits CDC climate testimony – Yeah, again!


Turns out that the Emperor did not want anyone to know what the possible health effects of climate change were going to be.

White House edits CDC climate testimony – Yahoo! News:

It was eviscerated,’ said a CDC official, familiar with both versions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the review process.

The official said that while it is customary for testimony to be changed in a White House review, these changes were particularly ‘heavy-handed,’ with the document cut from its original 14 pages to four. It was six pages as presented to the Senate committee.

So, is there any point in blogging about this story about the Emperor and his politburo wielding the censor pen on yet another government report? No, because like million other stories like the one above, nothing comes of it. Nobody loses anything, the press does not understand that this behavior is unprecedented and more representative of 1960s USSR than the so called leader of the free world. The people who read about it could not care less. This is small fry compared to the “enhanced interrogation techniques” (call it torture), “private military contractors” (call them mercenaries), “extraordinary rendition” (state sanctioned kidnapping, disappearing, whatever you call it), etc. This country has apparently been outraged to boredom. Where does the “editing” (censoring) of a government report even register on this list of outrages?

Seriously, the Democratic party has been the most undistinguished of opposition parties. Yes, they supposedly control the Senate and Congress, but they don’t. In this weird undemocratic and archaic presidential system, you can only succeed if you have 60% of the Senate, 67% of the Congress or the president on your side. So, functionally, the Democrats are still the opposition party and do not seem to understand that as the opposition party, they need to oppose, manufacture outrage (in this case, no manufacturing necessary), and keep yelling continuously. Some shrillness is indicated here. Yes, they have some power that comes from the majorities, but the power needs to be used. They have to keep sending bills that the president will veto, they have to keep subpoenaing the politburo members so they can refuse to testify, and they have to keep repeating that they’re outraged, I tell you, outraged!!

Oh well, I come from the famously fractious politics of India, so none of my rants are going to make sense. If you want outrage, here you go… Mind you, this is the member of the coalition that rules India exerting pressure on it’s ally, not even the real opposition who only yesterday called for the PM to resign because “a resurgent nation like India should not be led by a helpless and sad leader” – Ouch, take that!! All this over a nuclear deal with the US where India gained all kinds of concessions for essentially building a nuclear arsenal on the sly and against the wishes of the international community.

The democrats needs a master class on opposition politics from the BJP.

Picture Courtesy Ristocrats

Monkeys kill Delhi deputy mayor


This is seriously screwed up. I went to school (both undergrad and grad school) on a forested campus where an open dorm room window meant a thorough ransacking by monkeys, who for some reason really loved after-shave! They are aggressive little beasts, though (too much lead exposure on Delhi’s roads?). And apparently, they can cause human deaths.

BBC NEWS | South Asia | Monkeys kill Delhi deputy mayor:

“The deputy mayor of the Indian capital Delhi died on Sunday after being attacked by a horde of wild monkeys.

SS Bajwa suffered serious head injuries when he fell from the first-floor terrace of his home on Saturday morning trying to fight off the monkeys.

Monkeys are (and have been) a public health menace in Delhi. Now, they’ve gone too far and claimed a politician’s life. Maybe this will be the wake up call for a round up effort.

Lead and Crime


The next time Giuliani tries to take credit for the decrease in violence during his tenure as NYC’s mayor, send him this chart.

The NY Times shines some light on Jessica Reyes’ excellent work linking decreased lead exposure to a drop in violent crime in the US. The decreased lead exposure, of course, was from the phase-out of leaded gasoline from the American market. BTW, Nascar still uses leaded gasoline in its cars, nice going, guys.

The answer, according to Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, lies in the cleanup of a toxic chemical that affected nearly everyone in the United States for most of the last century. After moving out of an old townhouse in Boston when her first child was born in 2000, Reyes started looking into the effects of lead poisoning. She learned that even low levels of lead can cause brain damage that makes children less intelligent and, in some cases, more impulsive and aggressive (Emphasis Added).

Lead exposure at an early age (2-3 years) is especially significant as this is an age where personality development occurs and any interference in neuron development and apoptosis (death!) can cause permanent changes in personality. This excellent review article summarizes the effects of lead on neuronal development.

Reyes’ research mentions that while decreased lead exposure was very well correlated with violent crime (accounting for 56% of the reduction in crime), no correlation was found to property crimes (such as theft). This of course makes intuitive sense. A property crime is usually premeditated whereas violence is usually impulsive (excluding serial killers, of course). It is more likely that a budding criminal sets out to steal a car than to beat somebody to pulp. It is when the crime goes wrong that the probability of a violent crime increases. An individual with damaged impulse control is then more likely to seek a violent way out of the bad situation.

Our society (like most) views violent crime as a moral issue, a matter of good and evil that is determined by your “character”. So, a simple chemical correlator to violent crime that can explain a majority of the commission of violent acts goes a long way in undermining this whole notion of morality and crime. Of course, there are other sociological factors at play which need to be addressed. But it is heartening to know that beyond all the complicated and recalcitrant social issues that underly crime, there’s a ubiquitously evil pollutant lurking that can be eliminated. I am guessing that this line of reasoning is not going to be very popular among the “tough on crime” types that perpetrate our political airwaves these days.


Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw (2007) “Environmental Policy as Social Policy? The Impact of Childhood Lead Exposure on Crime,” The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy: Vol. 7 : Iss. 1 (Contributions), Article 51.

Small-Scale Fisheries Bycatch Jeopardizes Loggerheads


This is almost a 1000 juveniles killed in a year in Baja California alone. The authors mention that over 99% of all fisherpeople are employed in small scale fisheries, which surprised me.

PLoS ONE: Small-Scale Fisheries Bycatch Jeopardizes Endangered Pacific Loggerhead Turtles:

Although bycatch of industrial-scale fisheries can cause declines in migratory megafauna including seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles, the impacts of small-scale fisheries have been largely overlooked. Small-scale fisheries occur in coastal waters worldwide, employing over 99% of the world’s 51 million fishers. New telemetry data reveal that migratory megafauna frequent coastal habitats well within the range of small-scale fisheries, potentially producing high bycatch. These fisheries occur primarily in developing nations, and their documentation and management are limited or non-existent, precluding evaluation of their impacts on non-target megafauna.

This is a surprising and unexpected finding because you would expect smaller fishing boats to have smaller impacts. I guess smaller scale fishing fleets in Mexico (and other developing nations) have not been targeted for education, awareness and enforcement of turtle safe fishing practices.

The good news from the study is that a major source of mortality has been identified and the authors point to recent efforts to increase awareness in the community about turtle safe fishing. But it will be a long and hard fight to be tackled all over the world.

Benazir survives midnight carnage


Benazir Bhutto survives, others weren’t quite so lucky.

Benazir survives midnight carnage: Twin blasts cast shadow over homecoming. At least 125 dead -DAWN – Top Stories; October 19, 2007

Over 125 participants of a procession led by former prime minister Benazir Bhutto upon her return to the country lost their lives on Thursday night after two powerful blasts rocked the slow-moving motorcade edging its way past the Karsaz bridge, on Sharea Faisal.

At least 100 people were injured in the explosions.

Former FIA chief Rahman Malik told a private television channel that the explosions clearly targated Ms Benazir’s specially-built vehicle. He added that many top PPP leaders were injured.

Well, it’s probably too early to say who’s responsible. Terrorists, the ISI, who knows… but blaming “Al Quaeda” at this point in time is clearly premature. There are many terrorist groups based in Pakistan, most of them with no AQ links… Benazir Bhutto pointed fingers at the supporters of long dead former president Zia ul Haq, which seems puzzling. I did not know he still had supporters, having been dead since 1988.

Of course, in the short term, this will only increase Ms. Bhutto’s popularity.

'Shocking' conditions at Kenya dump


As part of blog action day, today’s a day when every blog features a post about the environment. Turns out that this is an environmental blog where most of the posts are about the environment. But nothing like a deadline for a noble cause to make me blog, so here goes…

What the rich use and throw away, the poor are reduced to scavenging to earn a meager living. Yes, while climate change rightly takes up a lot of attention, more mundane problems including landfills in poor communities, the export of waste from the first world to the third world, and the “shocking” poverty that drives this export of waste all deserve their fair share of attention.

U.N.: ‘Shocking’ conditions at Kenya dump – World Environment –

“Willis Ochieng, 10, scavenges through smoking refuse piled as high as a house at one of Africa‚Äôs biggest rubbish mountains, his friends sitting nearby sucking on dirty plastic bottles of noxious yellow glue.

Located near slums in the east of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, the open dump receives some 2,000 tons of garbage daily. A U.N. study published on Friday says it is seriously harming the health of children and polluting the city.”

And boy, do the people there suffer. Asthma, anemia, high levels of lead in the blood, chronic cough, and a smorgasbord of other acute and chronic conditions.

This dump is not alone, of course. Landfills are a feature of every country, and in my current home state of North Caroiina, are located with disproportionate frequency in African American communities. the free market advocate would say that this represents an opportunity for the people in the community to gain some employment and make some money. The truth of the matter, however, is that we do not pay the right price for waste generation. The people who live near, and make a living off the “dump” subsidize our profligate selves.