Pacific “Garbage Island” Stretches from Hawaii to Japan

A “plastic soup” of waste floating in the Pacific Ocean is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.

The vast expanse of debris – in effect the world’s largest rubbish dump – is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.

Charles Moore, an American oceanographer who discovered the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “trash vortex”, believes that about 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region. Marcus Eriksen, a research director of the US-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which Mr Moore founded, said yesterday: “The original idea that people had was that it was an island of plastic garbage that you could almost walk on. It is not quite like that. It is almost like a plastic soup. It is endless for an area that is maybe twice the size as continental United States.”

Curtis Ebbesmeyer, an oceanographer and leading authority on flotsam, has tracked the build-up of plastics in the seas for more than 15 years and compares the trash vortex to a living entity: “It moves around like a big animal without a leash.” When that animal comes close to land, as it does at the Hawaiian archipelago, the results are dramatic. “The garbage patch barfs, and you get a beach covered with this confetti of plastic,” he added.

The “soup” is actually two linked areas, either side of the islands of Hawaii, known as the Western and Eastern Pacific Garbage Patches. About one-fifth of the junk – which includes everything from footballs and kayaks to Lego blocks and carrier bags – is thrown off ships or oil platforms. The rest comes from land.

Mr Moore, a former sailor, came across the sea of waste by chance in 1997, while taking a short cut home from a Los Angeles to Hawaii yacht race. He had steered his craft into the “North Pacific gyre” – a vortex where the ocean circulates slowly because of little wind and extreme high pressure systems. Usually sailors avoid it.

He was astonished to find himself surrounded by rubbish, day after day, thousands of miles from land. “Every time I came on deck, there was trash floating by,” he said in an interview. “How could we have fouled such a huge area? How could this go on for a week?”

Mr Moore, the heir to a family fortune from the oil industry, subsequently sold his business interests and became an environmental activist. He warned yesterday that unless consumers cut back on their use of disposable plastics, the plastic stew would double in size over the next decade.

Professor David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, said more research was needed to establish the size and nature of the plastic soup but that there was “no reason to doubt” Algalita’s findings.

“After all, the plastic trash is going somewhere and it is about time we get a full accounting of the distribution of plastic in the marine ecosystem and especially its fate and impact on marine ecosystems.”

Professor Karl is co-ordinating an expedition with Algalita in search of the garbage patch later this year and believes the expanse of junk actually represents a new habitat. Historically, rubbish that ends up in oceanic gyres has biodegraded. But modern plastics are so durable that objects half-a-century old have been found in the north Pacific dump. “Every little piece of plastic manufactured in the past 50 years that made it into the ocean is still out there somewhere,” said Tony Andrady, a chemist with the US-based Research Triangle Institute.

Mr Moore said that because the sea of rubbish is translucent and lies just below the water’s surface, it is not detectable in satellite photographs. “You only see it from the bows of ships,” he said.

According to the UN Environment Programme, plastic debris causes the deaths of more than a million seabirds every year, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals. Syringes, cigarette lighters and toothbrushes have been found inside the stomachs of dead seabirds, which mistake them for food.

Plastic is believed to constitute 90 per cent of all rubbish floating in the oceans. The UN Environment Programme estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic,

Dr Eriksen said the slowly rotating mass of rubbish-laden water poses a risk to human health, too. Hundreds of millions of tiny plastic pellets, or nurdles – the raw materials for the plastic industry – are lost or spilled every year, working their way into the sea. These pollutants act as chemical sponges attracting man-made chemicals such as hydrocarbons and the pesticide DDT. They then enter the food chain. “What goes into the ocean goes into these animals and onto your dinner plate. It’s that simple,” said Dr Eriksen.

– This aritcle originally appeared in The Independent and was written by Kathy Marks, Asia-Pacific Correspondent, and Daniel Howden

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This is what democracy looks like

It’s hard to keep faith in representative democracy after days like today.

This afternoon, the United States Senate voted to preserve retroactive legal immunity for telecom companies who cooperated with intelligence agencies in the wake of September 11, 2001.

What’s more, the Senate also permitted the government to conduct wiretaps without a warrant by reauthorizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act without any additional protection for the privacy of Americans.

Here’s Senator Russ Feingold setting forth the implications of this bill in layman’s terms.

You can prove the United States conducts torture, but you still can’t hold anyone accountable. The same goes for tearing asunder U.S. domestic laws regarding privacy and protections against self-incrimination. The same goes for the 24/7 surveillance society that has sprung up over the past seven years.

There was a lot of empty talk about “change” during the ’06 elections. In the ’08 Presidential campaign, that catchphrase has been substituted for genuine discussion of the disaster that is the Global War on Terror, record inequality, the creeping re-segregation (class or racial, take your pick) of American society, and the decrepitude of a bicameral political system beholden to banking and military-industrial institutions that have driven the United States into needless wars and a looming economic catastrophe.

To quote a certain Washington native, “regime change starts at home.”

written by Ali Winston

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Criminal neglect

Lost amidst the tumult of primary fever was the ninth anniversary on Monday of Amadou Diallo’s infamous shooting by the NYPD’s street crime unit.

On the morning of Feb. 4, 1999, the Guinean immigrant was cut down by a hail of 41 bullets in the doorway of his Bronx home. Was he carrying a Glock? A Desert Eagle? A live grenade?

Diallo was holding his wallet in his hands. The officers had mistaken him for a serial rapist and panicked when Diallo reached inside his jacket to produce identification. All four cops were acquitted in a jury trial that had been moved Upstate because Bronx residents, in the eyes of the court, were biased against the NYPD.

 Although the incident caused nation-wide outrage and touched off days of heated protest in front of One Police Plaza, not one New York or national news outlet opted to cover the anniversary. For many New Yorkers, particularly black and Latino residents, the Diallo case is a shining example of NYPD over-policing in minority neighborhoods.

Moreover, Diallo’s death is frequently invoked in the discussion of another high-profile NYPD shooting of a 23-year-old black man, that of Sean Bell in November 2006. Bell’s trial is set to begin later this month, and although the trial will remain in queens, the three detectives accused of his murder will be tried by a judge instead of a jury.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

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The New New York and Postmodernism

This is the way Postmodernism arrived. Not with a bang but a whimper. I stepped into a taxi several months ago, my first cab ride after moving back to New York City following a five-year absence. I was shocked to discover that many taxis had installed monitors in the back-seat partition during the interim. This particular one offered me a news report from one of the local network affiliates.

The top story? A pending taxi strike, of course, spurred by conflicts between cabbies and City Hall over the installation of screens in the cars. I didn’t dare ask the driver for his opinion on the matter. My mind couldn’t take so many levels of meaning, irony and coincidence at the same time.

Postmodernism, that nebulous intellectual burden of all scholars, is nothing new. Indeed, it’s grown so old that one wonders why it hasn’t died a quiet, dignified death yet. But getting smacked by it in the back seat of a New York cab was just too much.

 The Hearst Tower in Manhattan

This wasn’t the first time Postmodernism intersected with something so intrinsically New York. For architectural examples, take a walk by Norman Foster’s new Hearst Tower for a view of a skyscraper rigorously deformed from the all-too-common rigid lines and boxy contours of blah modernism. And then there is Philip Johnson’s Sony Building (nee AT&T Building), that snarky, self-referential strike at the glass box by one of its greatest formulators and practitioners. Architectural tempers have rarely been so inflamed as they were by the ridiculously superfluous pediment Johnson plopped atop his design. Even Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, all rotund and curvilinear, is an obvious marker of a new style.

Literary New York, meanwhile, was almost perfectly depicted in the works of Brooklyn native Paul Auster. Beginning with “The New York Trilogy” and continuing through many of his subsequent novels, the city became a playground for intertextuality, for finding the hidden underneath the ordinary surface of life and for extended wanderings through shifting ideas of identity and mystery.

But Postmodernism appeared in my life long before Auster, Johnson or that absurd taxicab experience. It showed up rather randomly at the beginning of sophomore year at the elitist New York private school I attended.

“And once we get through all that, we’ll even talk a little about Postmodernism,” my teacher intoned after describing the course of study for her yearlong history class.

A sharp taskmaster with a passion for discussing the French Revolution and a talent for inspiring dread in slackers, she had listed off a catalogue of subjects from the Enlightenment to the Marshall Plan, generating little but ennui from the student body. But when Postmodernism was announced, it drew forth oohs and aahs from the assembled pupils.

Postmodernism (and it seems so momentous and ostentatious a word that it requires constant capitalization if not perhaps the insertion of some foreign diacritical marks for added prestige) was one of those nebulous terms of the intelligentsia that us academic neophytes had heard but never truly understood. It somehow seemed too advanced for high school students – like Ulysses or the French New Wave – something that our parents would tell us not to pursue until our intellects had caught up with our curiosity in a few years. So Postmodernism’s inclusion in the syllabus gave us all a sense of maturity, far more than the average 15-year-old kid probably had.

Postmodernism seemed an appropriate conclusion for our two-year whirlwind tour through the history of the world (or rather, the history of Western civilization, though no one would admit it). The year before, I had a gangly, effete teacher with a mid-Atlantic accent a bit more American than Cary Grant’s. His constant, needling question, also spoken with the gravest of tones: “At what price modernity?” I never truly uncovered the answer.

Ultimately, we didn’t get as far as Postmodernism during sophomore year. Hampered by length discussions of modern art and “The Communist Manifesto,” our class was stuck on the Cold War when it wrapped up in June. But when I graduated from college six years later, I had as firm a grip as anybody on what Postmodernism meant – namely, everything.

I was delivered harsh doses of Postmodernism in college. The subject hardly seemed to matter; history, political science, art history, English, film – all ceaselessly elicited the P-word, most often from professors but increasingly from students as well.

The only class I am sure did not include Postmodernism was inferential calculus. Differential calculus, on the other hand, was taught by a chain-smoking native of Tblisi prone to exclaiming in a thick Georgian accent, “Now look at this super-duper equation.” It was almost a constant exercise in meta-mathematics.

Meta, of course, became the preferred prefix in those days, and its attachment before many words seemed to stir furrowed brows and more abstract discussion than anything else. And why not? Survey courses in history, which became my major, were invariably dragged down by the details. Discussing the study of history rather than history itself was far more intellectually rewarding, so I have no complaints about my education. The only enduring disappointment was never coming across the term meta-Postmodernism in any text. But there it still time.

There was much to enjoy about Postmodernism But to the poorly informed and the pseudo-intellectuals, Postmodernism became an academic crutch. It could explain anything if used vaguely enough, as was often the case. And when people employed the word, they were most often simply describing literary or artistic references as crass as the ones that begin and end this article.

The final word (and perhaps the most intelligent one) on Postmodernism belonged, of course, to “The Simpsons,” that singularly thorough satirical chronicler or American life.

The plot of “Homer the Moe,” an episode in the 13th season of the TV series, depicted Moe Szyslak’s attempts to refurbish his eponymous tavern into a swanky nightclub. The perpetually perspiring schlub soon reopens his bar as “m” and quickly attracts a clientele consisting of the hipster elite. When Homer Simpson and the rest of the gang from the old Moe’s Tavern arrive, they are disappointed to find the television broadcasting a large image of a blinking eye. The décor, a regular explains, is Postmodern, or just Po-mo for short. When Homer tries to turn the TV to a football game, he is greeted with widespread hostility, though one clubgoer says watching football is OK if it’s done with irony.

Well, Po-mo did to Postmodernism what D-Wade, J-Kidd and K-Mart did to basketball nicknames. The Poetry-in-Motion folks probably weren’t too happy, but the hyphenated conflation of Postmodernism rendered it a merely overused byword for the world’s youth and pop culture consumers.

No endless college classroom discussions on the methods of history could outdo this. And so, for several years, I thought that Homer Simpson, large blinking eyes and the worst fictional bar in the world had taught me all I needed to know about Po-mo. And then I stepped into the back of a cab on the Upper West Side.

Ah, Postmodernism! Ah, humanity!

written by Adam Bloch

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Kill the poor

So it’s official.

The country is plunging headlong into a recession and not even New York City, home of Wall Street and the last bastion of prosperity in the plummeting real-estate market, is exempt.

Last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg announced that the city would be slashing its budget for the new year as a result of the market’s recent troubles. The numbers speak for themselves. In June of last year, the city projected $16.8 billion in revenues for Wall Street firms. Current estimates put estimated revenues for 2008 at $2.8 billion – a 600% decrease. If that’s not a recession, tell me what is.

If the richest of the rich are feeling the effects of the market crash, then what about the rest of us, left behind in this age of record inequality? As a result of the subprime mortgage crisis (which is mushrooming into a broader credit crisis), millions of working poor or lower-middle class Americans will be put out of a home by year’s end, or hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Hundreds of thousands have already lost their homes, largely in majority-minority neighborhoods from the Outer Boroughs to Inland Empire.

So what is the solution? Does the government increase taxes for the top 10% of Americans, who reap the majority of this country’s wealth? Think again. The Federal government opts to enact a stimulus package that does nothing, I repeat, nothing for the growing number of working poor – there isn’t even an increase for food stamp allowances at a time when biofuels and international market pressures are pushing food prices steadily upwards. President Bush wants to make his infamous tax cuts, which disproportionately benefit the wealth, permanent.

So how do struggling municipalities stay attractive to businesses and the wealthy without demanding they give up a greater share of their income to balance out the vagaries of the market?

Poor taxes!

New York is at the forefront of this initiative. Mayor Bloomberg’s much-touted congestion pricing initiative hurts everyone but the small segments of New Yorkers wealthy or lucky enough to live below 86th street in Manhattan. Outer Borough residents and business owners who rely on cars rather than far-flung subways, as well as those driving in from New Jersey, Long Island, and Upstate New York (where almost all of the city’s bulk merchandise comes from).

The recent subway fare hike, vigorously opposed by riders and the subject of an incessent Daily News campaign, passed even though the spectacularly inept (whisper it, corrupt) Metropolitan Transit Authority was running a budget surplus. Base fare stayed constant at $2, which is terrific for the legions of tourists here for the day, but does not help everyday commuters who can’t afford $81 monthly passes and live on $10 and $20 Metrocards, which now provide fewer free rides.

More outlandishly, Governor Eliot Spitzer raised the sales tax on sales of malt liquor and cigarillos, and enacted a stamp tax on drugs seized by police. That’s correct – not only is it more expensive to drink away your sorrows legally, but New York State will now tax you $3.50 for every gram of weed they seize from you. It’s not legal to possess, and you still will face narcotics charges, but at least the state got some cash out of you!

There is no comparable tax on caviar, Cristal, or imported cigars.

Things are no better on the West Coast. Rocked by record foreclosures and fearful of a statewide recession, some California politicians are moving to ease the fiscal burden on landlords and allow them to reap greater profits by repealing the state’s rent control laws. 1.2 million Californians live in rent-controlled properties. On the cusp of a recession, the country’s largest state could very well expose over a million residents to higher rents and possible homelessness.

All this in a “classless” society. It’s only a matter of time before something gives and people snap out of their American Idol-induced stupors.  Without a new crop of mind-numbing sitcoms, that could be sooner rather than later. At least some good could come from the writer’s strike…

written by Ali Winston

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How Plastic We’ve Become: Our Bodies Carry Residues of Kitchen Plastics

In the 1967 film classic The Graduate, a businessman corners Benjamin Braddock at a cocktail party and gives him a bit of career advice. “Just one word…plastics.”

Although Benjamin didn’t heed that recommendation, plenty of other young graduates did. Today, the planet is awash in products spawned by the plastics industry. Residues of plastics have become ubiquitous in the environment—and in our bodies.

A federal government study now reports that bisphenol A (BPA)—the building block of one of the most widely used plastics—laces the bodies of the vast majority of U.S. residents young and old.

Manufacturers link BPA molecules into long chains, called polymers, to make polycarbonate plastics. All of those clear, brittle plastics used in baby bottles, food ware, and small kitchen appliances (like food-processor bowls) are made from polycarbonates. BPA-based resins also line the interiors of most food, beer, and soft-drink cans. With use and heating, polycarbonates can break down, leaching BPA into the materials they contact. Such as foods.

And that could be bad if what happens in laboratory animals also happens in people, because studies in rodents show that BPA can trigger a host of harmful changes, from reproductive havoc to impaired blood-sugar control and obesity (SN: 9/29/07, p. 202).

For the new study, scientists analyzed urine from some 2,500 people who had been recruited between 2003 and 2004 for the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Roughly 92 percent of the individuals hosted measurable amounts of BPA, according to a report in the January Environmental Health Perspectives. It’s the first study to measure the pollutant in a representative cross-section of the U.S. population.

Typically, only small traces of BPA turned up, concentrations of a few parts per billion in urine, note chemist Antonia M. Calafat and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, with hormone-mimicking agents like BPA, even tiny exposures can have notable impacts.

Overall, concentrations measured by Calafat’s team were substantially higher than those that have triggered disease, birth defects, and more in exposed animals, notes Frederick S. vom Saal, a University of Missouri-Columbia biologist who has been probing the toxicology of BPA for more than 15 years.

The BPA industry describes things differently. Although Calafat’s team reported urine concentrations of BPA, in fact they assayed a breakdown product—the compound by which BPA is excreted, notes Steven G. Hentges of the American Chemistry Council’s Polycarbonate/BPA Global Group. As such, he argues, “this does not mean that BPA itself is present in the body or in urine.”

On the other hand, few people have direct exposure to the breakdown product.

Hentges’ group estimates that the daily BPA intake needed to create urine concentrations reported by the CDC scientists should be in the neighborhood of 50 nanograms per kilogram of bodyweight—or one millionth of an amount at which “no adverse effects” were measured in multi-generation animal studies. In other words, Hentges says, this suggests “a very large margin of safety.”

No way, counters vom Saal. If one applies the ratio of BPA intake to excreted values in hosts of published animal studies, concentrations just reported by CDC suggest that the daily intake of most Americans is actually closer to 100 micrograms (µg) per kilogram bodyweight, he says—or some 1,000-fold higher than the industry figure.

Clearly, there are big differences of opinion and interpretation. And a lot may rest on who’s right.

Globally, chemical manufacturers produce an estimated 2.8 million tons of BPA each year. The material goes into a broad range of products, many used in and around the home. BPA also serves as the basis of dental sealants, which are resins applied to the teeth of children to protect their pearly whites from cavities (SN: 4/6/96, p. 214). The industry, therefore, has a strong economic interest in seeing that the market for BPA-based products doesn’t become eroded by public concerns over the chemical.

And that could happen. About 2 years after a Japanese research team showed that BPA leached out of baby bottles and plastic food ware (see What’s Coming Out of Baby’s Bottle?), manufacturers of those consumer products voluntarily found BPA substitutes for use in food cans. Some 2 years after that, a different group of Japanese scientists measured concentrations of BPA residues in the urine of college students. About half of the samples came from before the switch, the rest from after the period when BPA was removed from food cans.

By comparing urine values from the two time periods, the researchers showed that BPA residues were much lower—down by at least 50 percent—after Japanese manufacturers had eliminated BPA from the lining of food cans.

Concludes vom Saal, in light of the new CDC data and a growing body of animal data implicating even low-dose BPA exposures with the potential to cause harm, “the most logical thing” for the United States to do would be to follow in Japan’s footsteps and “get this stuff [BPA] out of our food.”

Kids appear most exposed

Overall, men tend to have statistically lower concentrations of BPA than women, the NHANES data indicate. But the big difference, Calafat says, traces to age. “Children had higher concentrations than adolescents, and they in turn had higher levels than adults,” she told Science News Online.

This decreasing body burden with older age “is something we have seen with some other nonpersistent chemicals,” Calafat notes—such as phthalates, another class of plasticizers.

The spread between the average BPA concentration that her team measured in children 6 to 11 years old (4.5 µg/liter) and adults (2.5 µg/L) doesn’t look like much, but proved reliably different.

The open question is why adults tended to excrete only 55 percent as much BPA. It could mean children have higher exposures, she posits, or perhaps that they break it down less efficiently. “We really need to do more research to be able to answer that question.”

Among other differences that emerged in the NHANES analysis: urine residues of BPA decreased with increasing household income and varied somewhat with ethnicity (with Mexican-Americans having the lowest average values, blacks the highest, and white’s values in between).

There was also a time-of-day difference, with urine values for any given group tending to be highest in the evening, lowest in the afternoon, and midway between those in the morning. Since BPA’s half-life in the body is only about 6 hours, that temporal variation in the chemical’s excretion would be consistent with food as a major source of exposure, the CDC scientists note.

In the current NHANES paper, BPA samples were collected only once from each recruit. However, in a paper due to come out in the February Environmental Health Perspectives, Calafat and colleagues from several other institutions looked at how BPA excretion varied over a 2-year span among 82 individuals—men and women—seen at a fertility clinic in Boston.

In contrast to the NHANES data, the upcoming report shows that men tended to have somewhat higher BPA concentrations than women. Then again both groups had only about one-quarter the concentration typical of Americans.

The big difference in the Boston group emerged among the 10 women who ultimately became pregnant. Their BPA excretion increased 33 percent during pregnancy. Owing to the small number of participants in this subset of the study population, the pregnancy-associated change was not statistically significant. However, the researchers report, these are the first data to look for changes during pregnancy and ultimately determining whether some feature of pregnancy—such as a change in diet or metabolism of BPA—really alters body concentrations of the pollutant could be important. It could point to whether the fetus faces an unexpectedly high exposure to the pollutant.

If it does, the fetus could face a double whammy: Not only would exposures be higher during this period of organ and neural development, but rates of detoxification also would be diminished, vom Saal says.

Indeed, in a separate study, one due to be published soon in Reproductive Toxicology, his team administered BPA by ingestion or by injection to 3-day-old mice. Either way, the BPA exposure resulted in comparable BPA concentrations in blood.

What’s more, that study found, per unit of BPA delivered, blood values in the newborns were “markedly higher” than other studies have reported for adult rodents exposed to the chemical. And that makes sense, vom Saal says, because the enzyme needed to break BPA down and lead to its excretion is only a tenth as active in babies as in adults. That’s true in the mouse, he says, in the rat—and, according to some preliminary data, in humans.

Vom Saal contends that since studies have shown BPA exhibits potent hormonelike activity in human cells at the parts-per-trillion level, and since the new CDC study finds that most people are continually exposed to concentrations well above the parts-per-trillion ballpark, it’s time to reevaluate whether it makes sense to use BPA-based products in and around foods.

Source: Janet Raloff – Science News Online

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Two Years and Waiting

This video, from mid-December, features Jamie Leigh Jones on MSNBC recounting her nightmare.  While working for KBR in Baghdad, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Jamie was drugged and gang-raped vaginally and anally by a group of co-workers.

It’s been two years since the event happened and still no suspects have been arrested.  As for Jamie, she was told right after the incident that if she reported the rape, she could kiss her job goodbye. Military doctors confirmed that Jamie had been raped but the rape kit “magically” disappeared once it was handed over to KBR security officers.

Ask yourself how many other scenarios like this are occurring that the public is not made aware of – Why this situation has not come to a conclusion–How many other US employees deployed over seas are mistreating, not only American women, but women all over the world.

We’re given this squeaky clean image of the US “Installing Democracy,” some even going so far as to saying the other countries are “lucky” for our intervention. This event is not even the apex–it is the slightly protruding head of a very large submerged iceberg.  We are not fed the truth, we are fed propaganda.  And when brave young women come forth as victims and speak up, their own moral fiber is questioned.

– written by Elena Gaudino

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