Archive for the ‘Enviornment’ Category

Could the Tide Be Turning on Anti-GMO Groups?

Saturday, June 1st, 2013

Genetically Modified Organisms may be one of the greatest single achievements of science of the late 20th century.  In addition to providing better crops, they can produce unlimited amounts of human clotting factor, insulin and other compounds needed by medicine.

As far as food crops go, there is absolutely no reason to think they are dangerous or unhealthy and volumes of scientific data to prove they are perfectly safe.   Like conventional crops, genetically modified food crops are made of the same basic materials: water, salt, cellulose, sugars, proteins etc.   The genes may be slightly different but your body certainly doesn’t care.  And while it is possible that introducing new genes and thus proteins could cause allergic reactions, this has been accounted for in all tests and no reports of mass incidents of allergic reactions have occurred.

Most modern farmers purchase their seeds from seed companies, which provide a more consistent product than producing their own seeds.  Hybridized and specially bred varieties are available and may cost more, but also offer benefits.   Genetically modified seeds fit into this business  model as do any other type of seed.

Despite this, activists have gone nuts over this technology.  Many have demanded that the crops are not fit for human consumption, must be banned and blame them for everything from obesity to cancer, despite lack of evidence.   Fields have been burned or mowed down, protests have been held across the world.  Efforts often center around the company Monsanto, which is he single largest producer of genetically modified products.  Monsanto only accounts for about a quarter of products currently available.   It’s the company everyone seems to love to hate, but that does not make its products unhealthy or unsafe.

The extreme activism and political pressure has resulted in a few jurisdictions severely restricting or banning genetically modified crops.  It has even lead to famine-stricken regions refusing food aid on the basis that it might contain genetically modified material.

Yet the tide now seems to be starting to turn, at least slightly.  A few prominent environmentalists and humanitarians are stepping up to the plate to denounce the knee-jerk fear of genetic engineering.

This article from the Daily Kos has recently been getting a great deal of attention:

GMO Truthers need to be kicked out of the Progressive movement

I consider myself to be part of the “far left.” I also have multiple scientific degrees and work in the health care field. I strongly believe that my science background has resulted in my Progressive ideology. The reason being is Progressivism is a fact and science based ideology, whereas Conservatism is a faith based ideology. Conservatives offer religious, faith based solutions to social problems. Moreover, they rely on faith in the “invisible hand” for solutions to the economy, and any free market outcome – whether good or bad – is a moral outcome regardless of its practicality. Hence, wanting to let the economy hit rock bottom after the financial crisis, because that was the “moral”/free market thing to do.

Why do I bring this up? Because a biologist recently wrote a diary criticizing the far left for being a home for GMO truthers. And, unfortunately, Meteor Blades recently promoted GMO nonsense on the front page.

I would probably say that most progressives don’t know much about GMO at all because this topic – especially the science behind it – is not discussed nearly as much as something like climate change or evolution. And this is perfectly all right! It is impossible to know everything about everything. You know GMO has something to do with big corrupt corporations (i.e. Monsanto) and there are a lot of people and groups you inherently trust who say GMO is bad, so you are naturally inclined to think of GMO as a negative thing.

It’s worth a look and I certainly hope it continues to get attention. The comments are predictable, unfortunately. There are a few who are standing up for reason, but many are still in fear of GMO’s.

Politics aside (and I would not consider myself to be part of the fart political left or modern progressivism in general) it is great to see this major segment starting to show some backlash against the GMO fear-mongers.

Political philosophy, after all, is a matter of value judgements and is not fallible. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and there’s no way to prove whether one ideology is right or wrong. But everyone is not entitled to their facts and the safety of GMO’s is an issue of scientific fact. Either you agree with it or you are wrong.

Shameful “Study” Claims Fukushima Radiation Affected US Babies

Wednesday, April 10th, 2013

What can I say.  I am mad.   I am ripping mad.  I’m disgusted.  I’ve seen a level of dishonesty and scientific misinformation so grotesque, I don’t even know what to say.

One expects that vested interests will tweak data or publish biased studies to support their own causes from time to time.  It’s dishonest and unacceptable, but it happens.  Still, sometimes the level of dishonesty is so severe it really shocks the conscious.

Such is the case with a recent “study” from the Radiation and Public Health Project.   It is so dishonest in its claims it really makes me wonder about the pathology of those who are behind it.  What is their goal?  To they, deep down, think they are serving a greater good with these lies?   Have they justified this to themselves through some rationalization that preserves their need for attention and to appear to be heros?   I’m sure a psychologist could have a field day.

Here is how it was reported in Yahoo News:

Fukushima fallout may be causing illness in American babies: Study
A new study from the Radiation and Public Health Project found that babies born in the western United States as well as other Pacific countries shortly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011 may be at greater risk for congenital hypothyroidism.

Babies born in places including Hawaii, Alaska, California, Oregon and Washington shortly after Fukushima were 28 percent more likely to suffer from the illness, according to the study, than children born in those same regions one year earlier. The illness, if untreated, can cause permanent handicaps in both the body and brain.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “If untreated, congenital hypothyroidism can lead to intellectual disability and abnormal growth. In the United States and many other countries, all newborns are tested for congenital hypothyroidism. If treatment begins in the first month after birth, infants usually develop normally.”

But… how could this possibly be?

It is true that nuclear fission produces a significant quantity of iodine-131, a radioactive isotope which can cause damage to the thyroid, due to its high biological uptake and tendency to accumulate in the thyroid.   Thyroid tissue is radiation-sensitive to begin with, so in nuclear accidents, iodine-131 is one of the greatest concerns.

Of course, we are talking about the United States of America.  This is thousands of miles from Japan and any iodine-131 that might make it across the Pacific would be expected to be extremely dilute.   Not only that, but with a half-life of only eight days, the fact that it takes a minimum of a few days for atmospheric material to traverse the Pacific (and usually more than that) means that a good portion of the isotope would have decayed by the time it reached the US.

This is born out by the fact that when iodine-131 (which normally does not occur in nature) was detected in the US, after the Fukushima incident, the levels were miniscule.  Radioisotopes like iodine-131 can be detected at extremely low levels. This is done by collecting samples of precipitation, dust or air and placing them in a detector which can detect the characteristic energy levels of the gamma ray photons radioisotopes emit.  When a gamma ray of the energy associated with iodine-131 is detected, it indicates an atom of the isotope has decayed.  Since its half-life is so short, even a few hundred atoms of iodine-131 will produce detectable radiation, if they are present in a sample.

It is a testament to the precision of modern gamma spectrometers that iodine-131 could be detected at all in both the US and Europe.  Yet, although it was detected, in some cases, the levels were so low that the actual concentration could not even be reliably established.    This is not a big surprise, given that even in Tokyo, which was thousands of miles closer to Fukushima, the levels of iodine-131 only briefly exceeded what is considered the “safe” standard for infants.   It should be noted that the standard is extremely conservative.

If that is not compelling reason enough to be skeptical of claims that the iodine-131 levels in the US were high enough to cause harm to infants, it should also be noted that an entire generation of US citizens was exposed to hundreds or thousands of times more iodine-131 from atmospheric nuclear testing.   What harm this may have caused is still a matter of debate.  it likely did result in some additional cases of thyroid cancer, but it certainly did not lead to a large number of kids of the 1950′s and 1960′s with major thyroid problems.

So how could these babies possibly have been damaged by Fukishima fallout?


Lets take a look at the actual study, which can be downloaded here.


An Overlooked Danger of Solar Thermal Plants: Fire and Explosion

Monday, April 8th, 2013

After doing some reading about solar energy I came across some information on a danger that had, quite frankly, not occurred to me before.  It seems that many forms of solar thermal energy production carry a very high risk of severe fire and even explosion.

Solar thermal power plants use large mirrors to concentrate the suns light on collectors.  In most systems this works through trough mirrors which focus the light onto long pipes.  In others, an array of mirrors focuses the energy on a central receiver, which contains a fluid that is heated by the light.   The fluid is normally pumped continuously through a system of collection tubes in order to transfer as much heat as possible.

Leaks have always plagued solar thermal power systems.   The tubes must be thin to maximize thermal transfer and to keep costs down, and the scale of the systems is necessarily very large.   This, combined with the stress of daily heating and cooling has lead to what might be called a “plumbers nightmare” and explains why so much labor is required to keep solar thermal plants up and running.

The engineering challenge of providing a leak-resistant way of transferring the fluid through miles, under such harsh conditions has resulted in a number of approaches, including the use of ball joints and flexible hoses.   The sheer size of utility-scale installations has also been a problem, since the connections and tubing must be made as economically as possible.


Study on Effects of Geneticly Engineered Food Turns out to be Fradulant

Friday, March 29th, 2013

There have been many claims made about the potential health dangers of genetically modified crops by a number of groups.  Of course, most of these claims lack even the slightest evidence and seem to be based on the fallacy that anything artificial is dangerous.   While a few genetically engineered crops under development did show potential to cause allergies, these were quickly pulled from consideration for use in actual products.

Still, opponents continue to grasp for straws to prove that modifying DNA intentionally (as opposed as to by accident, which happens all the time) is somehow a danger to health.  A recent study claimed to have found strong evidence of harm, yet critical evaluation has found it not only to be flawed, but actually fraudulent.

Via Forbes:

Scientists Smell A Rat In Fraudulent Genetic Engineering Study
Last week French microbiologist Gilles-Eric Séralini and several colleagues released the results of a long-term study in which rats were fed genetically engineered (AKA genetically modified, or “GM”) corn that contains enhanced resistance to insects and/or the herbicide glyphosate. They took the unprecedented step of pre-releasing the paper to selected media outlets under an embargo on the condition that they sign a non-disclosure agreement. (That prevented the journalists from seeking scientific experts’ opinions on the article.) At a carefully orchestrated media event they then announced that their long-term studies found that the rats in experimental groups developed tumors at an alarming rate. Within hours news of their “discovery” echoed around the world. As we say today, the story “went viral.”

This really should have raised a red flag from the beginning. Typically, scientists will publish their work in a journal for review by other scientists before going to the media. If there are leaks about an especially large or important discovery, they may need to engage the media sooner, but this is usually done in a guarded manner. Otherwise, it’s normally improper to talk with the media about scientific data before it has been released in full, and doing so with a non-disclosure agreement is not normal.

Based on this atypical behavior and apparent desire for early media attention, the scent of a rat should have been strong even before the paper was released.  They also preempted publication of their study with the release of these extremely disturbing photos of the rats used in the experiment.


In Japan, Fears of Radiation Cause More Harm Than The Radiation Itself

Friday, March 8th, 2013

Recently stories have been making the rounds about how Japan is coping with the aftermath of the tsunami and the partial meltdown that occurred two years ago.  It is as sad as it is predictable that the fears of radiation would become the most lingering and harmful effect.   Even as the radiation itself has faded to background levels for most of the effected areas, public anxiety remains high.   This is exactly what happened with Chernobyl and other incidents.

Via the Associated Press:

Stress Emerges As Major Health Issue In Fukushima
MINAMI-SOMA, Japan (AP) — Japan’s radiation nightmare has turned the lively home that truck driver Takahiro Ishitani once shared with his wife and three sons into a cluttered bachelor pad.

A coffee mug full of cigarette butts, a towel and other odds and ends sit on a low table in the apartment’s small living room. He offers a visitor a takeout box lunch, his main source of sustenance these days. Laundry hangs inside so it won’t absorb the radiation that remains in the ground, two years after an earthquake and tsunami caused meltdowns and explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, about 30 kilometers (18 miles) to the south.

To escape this lonely weekday existence, the 42-year-old Ishitani drives three hours up winding roads every weekend to see his family, which has moved away because of fears that radiation could harm the children.

“If it really is safe, I want them to come back,” says Ishitani, a stocky man with a small beard on the tip of his chin. “But it’s hard to know. Different people say different things, and that adds to my stress. I don’t know whom to trust.”

Just as with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, mental distress could be one of the biggest health issues to emerge from this disaster, experts say. While attention has focused on the potential cancer risks, they remain unclear. What is clear is that the uncertainty and the upheaval it’s caused in people’s lives is already exacting a very real and pervasive psychological toll.

“It’s one of the biggest problems,” said Seiji Yasumura, a professor of public health at Fukushima Medical University.

Ishitani collapsed on the street with an ulcer nine months into the disaster. He was hospitalized for three days and still takes stomach medicine. The slightest tremor wakes him at night, and then he can’t back to sleep as he worries about the future.

Will his youngest son, 8-year-old Ryusei, ever be able to play in the woods and catch crawfish in the river as Ishitani did as a child? How long can his family continue this divided life? Will his now half-deserted hometown of Minami-Soma even survive — or shrivel and die?

They can and should move back now. The tiny increase in radiation is trivial compared to the amount of damage this has done to the social fabric of the areas effected. Sadly, very few seem to be advocating this while many continue to cash in on the tragedy as a way of promoting their own agenda, often through fear-mongering. More efforts to inform the public are definitely necessary. Sadly, they seem to be lacking

North Korea’s Nuclear Test

Thursday, February 14th, 2013

Since this is a subject of interest to many blog visitors, it seems worth creating it’s own post.

As all readers probably know, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, the third one in recent history.

In 2006, a nuclear test was conducted which yielded less than one kiloton and was almost certainly a fizzle, a major failure of the design.

In 2009, a second test was conducted.  This test seems to have had a yield in the range of four to five kilotons.  Although this represents a high enough yield to be a semi-viable weapon, it may well have been a partial fizzle, in which the weapon failed to detonate properly and efficiently.   However, it is difficult to know this for sure, and it could have been a scaled down test.

The more recent test has been estimated to have had a yield of more than seven kilotons and as much as ten kilotons.   This appears to be a weapon that is functioning more properly and is thus a viable nuclear explosive.  However, by modern standards, it remains a relatively small nuclear explosive.  The US inventory includes weapons of more than a megaton and only the smallest tactical nuclear weapons would be of a yield of ten kilotons or less.

North Korea has stated that the device was designed to be miniaturized in order to make it a more viable weapon for delivery by missile.  This cannot be verified.
Up until now, it has been presumed that the sophistication of North Korean nuclear weapons was probably comparable to the earliest US and Soviet Nuclear weapons, such as the Mark-3 Fat Man and the Soviet RDS-1 device.

The actual design and construction of the device is unknown.  Previous tests almost certainly used only plutonium, but North Korea has recently been developing the capability to enrich uranium.  It is not known if this was a uranium or plutonium bomb.  A uranium bomb can be constructed with much lower tolerances and will still function reliably.

All verifiable information comes from seismic data.  The tests were conducted underground and at a depth sufficient to prevent any discharge of fallout that could be subject to radiochemical analysis.

Currently it is unknown whether North Korea has any standing arsenal of nuclear devices or to what extent those devices may be suitable for use as a weapon.  However, if they do have any, it is certain that their inventory is quite small.

Releasing a First Draft Outline of Climate Change Policy

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

For those who do not know, I had previously run for the United States Congress and I fully intend to do so again in the year 2014.   As a proponent of science and energy policy reform, the issue of global warming/climate change and how the US should respond to mitigate it is of special importance.

I have begun work on a detailed policy outline on the topic of greenhouse gas emissions and how to reduce them while maintaining a policy that does not result in draconian cuts on energy usage or resort to the use of carbon taxation.   This is accomplished by targeting sectors that produce the most greenhouse gasses and attempting to facilitate change through the creation of economically-beneficial alternatives.

The current draft is in outline form.  It is not a full report but only a skeleton version of the areas that will need to be addressed.   Still, it is sixteen pages long even as is.

It is very important to remember that this is only a draft.  This does not represent the final policy statement and is subject to change.   It is a first draft of what is expected to be several revisions before a final, detailed report is put together. Some of the items may end up being dropped if they turn out to be too expensive or have too little benefit.  In the first draft, all potential areas are included.  It thus may be viewed, at least in some ways, as a “wish list” of policies that should be considered.

The reason I am publishing this is I am hoping to get some constructive criticism and suggestions from readers.   I recognize that readers of this blog are often very insightful.  Also, I pride my campaign on being as open as possible and listening to others for input.

Full Outline in PDF Form

Again, remember it is not the final revision and is not what I have officially stated as my fixed policy.  It is only a draft under revision.

“Smart Meters” – No, they do not make people sick

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Much to do has been made of the s0-called “smart meters” – electric meters that monitor the times electricity is used and transmit the data back to the utility company in order to bill customers based on the time they use electricity – charging higher rates for peak demand time and lower rates for electricity used during times of low demand.  The idea is that by doing so, they could encourage customers to better manage their electricity use and schedule energy intensive tasks for times of low demand – for example, washing and drying clothes.  This could help balance demand and lead to less need for more expensive peaking and load-following generation.   It also can supposedly save the customer money, but it often does not.

There are some valid reasons to oppose having a smart meter:

  • They could be considered part of an effort to shift the burden for reliable power and grid stability to the end customer.
  • Depending on your usage, they may not save you money and could result in your costs going up.
  • Life is complicated enough without having to worry about scheduling your tasks around the electric price schedule.
  • Once you get one installed, it’s likely to be impossible to get it removed, so if your electric company is asking for customers to volunteer for the new meters, it might be worth waiting to see if they really do end up saving money before taking the plunge.
  • You can tell a lot about someone from the times they use electricity (what days of the week they work, when they get up, when they leave for work, when they get home, when they go to sleep, when they are away from home etc)  Not all utilities have been very forthcoming about how they treat the information and whether they consider it private.  A telemarketer would definitely like to know what time would be good to call and bother you.   Even if the utility company does not sell the information, the government could certainly get it, and these days, at least in the US, the authorities have been acting like search warrants are obsolete.
  • The utility company may charge you a fee to install or for rental of the unit.  Not all utilities have been forthcoming about this, and it would be especially irritating if it turns out that the meter does not save you any money, AND you had to pay for it.

For all of these reasons, if my utility company were to offer the option of having a smart meter or opting out, I would opt out, at least until the meters had been installed for a few months and it was possible to find out whether other customers really did experience savings and did not end up getting targeted advertisements for insomnia medication or to have pizza delivered right at the time they have dinner.

But there is also a completely bogus reason to oppose smart meters: fears of radiation.   It’s ridiculous, not only unproven but completely out of line with decades of understanding of non-ionizing radiation.   Despite this, claims that smart meters are causing everything from cancer to headaches have become rampant.


Liquid Air for Energy Storage? No, it’s not a joke

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Thought that compressed air energy storage was ridiculously inefficient?   Well, it looks like they’ve managed to best it with a new concept in energy storage:  liquid air.

Yes, liquid air, as in cryonic liquid air.  In other words, this is a combination of liquid nitrogen, liquid oxygen and little bit of liquid argon.

Via Discovery News:

Frozen Air ‘Battery’ Stores Wind Turbine Energy

Liquid air, which can be frozen, stored and warmed later, could work better than batteries or fuel cells to store energy from wind turbines or other renewables.

The technology was originally developed by Peter Dearman, a garage inventor in Hertfordshire, U.K., to power vehicles. For the past several years, U.K. tech firm Highview Power Storage has been working to transfer Dearman’s innovation to a system that can store energy for power grids.

Dearman’s idea works like this: electricity generated by wind farms at night is used to chill air to -310 Farenheit — its cryogenic state — turning it into a liquid. The liquid air is then stored in a giant vacuum flask until it time to be used again. This is done at night when demand for electricity is low and the energy from wind would otherwise go wasted

When demand increases during the day, the air can be warmed to ambient temperature. As it vaporizes, it drives a turbine to produce electricity, according to the BBC’s Roger Harrabin.

In July, Highview Power Storage signed a commercial agreement with a German firm to develop “frozen air” plants in Sub-Saharan and South Africa. And it now has a pilot facility near a traditional gas-powered plant outside London. That way it takes advantage of the plant’s waste heat to warm the liquid air, making the entire process more efficient and less costly. Company officials say their energy-storage system is best designed to help smooth out the peaks and valleys of energy production that often occur with wind, solar and other renewable energy project.

And the video…

Liquifying air is a common industrial process.  It is most often used as the first step in certain types of air separation techniques.   Partial liquification of air can be used as the first step for the separation of nitrogen and oxygen, followed by additional liquification to separate out argon, or it can be used to produce liquid air which is then boiled in a series of distillation columns.    Occasionally, air is liquified and used in its mixed state as an ultra-low temperature refrigerant.


Residents Shocked About Uranium Facility – Demand Closure

Sunday, December 9th, 2012

For decades, a nuclear fuel fabrication facility has operated on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario.  Here, in a small industrial area, natural uranium oxide is brought to be compressed into small pellets, which are used for fuel in Canadian nuclear reactors.  The uranium is not enriched, as Canadian nuclear reactors use natural uranium with .7% uranium-235.   The material is identical to what is found in rocks and soil around the world, although it is purified and concentrated.  It’s about as common in the crust of the earth as tin, and, on rare occasions, may be found in a nearly pure oxide form in nature, as the result of geological forces.

No nuclear activities actually go on at the facility and the material does not result in any more radiation than would be found in many rock quarries.  The material is not a radiation hazard and only slightly toxic, considerably less toxic than substances like cadmium or mercury.

The plant also has never been a secret.  Granted, there are no big signs displaying the fact that the product produced on site happens to be uranium, but its operated completely in the open.  Copies of relevant licenses and permits can be obtained from the Canadian government.  Workers at the plant are free to discuss the nature of their employment openly.  If you knocked on the door of the plant and asked whoever came to open it what happens there, they would surely tell you that they make uranium fuel pellets.   There’s absolutely nothing hidden about it.

However, it seems that most in the community were simply unaware that the plant existed or that in this normal looking building uranium was being made into pellets.  They just went about their every day lives presuming that thenondescript building must be doing some non-scary industrial process, like storing large amounts of chlorine gas or hydrofluoric acid.

Until one day someone found out the horrible truth, that had never even been hidden to begin with…