Wednesday, November 18, 2015

E-waste industry leaders ECS Refining: clean, efficient, domestic

Recently I wrote a piece for the Berkeley Engineer alumni mag on a subject I've rarely covered over the last decade or so: e-waste. The subject of the story was ostensibly engineering alum Glen Langstaff, but effectively it was the broader field of e-waste recycling, with ECS Refining, the Stockton-based firm where Langstaff serves as manager and vice president of operations, in the spotlight. ECS takes all of UC Berkeley's e-waste, and that of many other institutions, organizations, and corporations, processing 50,000 tons of material annually at its state-of-the-art flagship Stockton facility alone. Nothing is scrapped, and nothing is shipped overseas. Technology and efficiency are key to the company's success in Stockton, and it plans to not only continue pushing the envelope there (through the addition of self-learning, collaborative robots) but also export that model to its other plants nationwide and facilitate the spread of its model to other companies, with the ultimate goal of 100 percent recycling of all US-generated e-waste. Read the full story here.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Between Extremes: Health Effects of Heat and Cold

My latest feature for Environmental Health Perspectives, on the cover of the November issue, addresses the relationship between temperature, human health, and climate change -- and in so doing, uncovers some unexpected details, such as the fact that moderate cold is associated with more deaths worldwide, on the whole, than extreme heat. While extreme heat waves can be highly dangerous (in some historic examples resulting in tens of thousands of deaths), in the scheme of things they're few and far between. The story also looks at how climate change is likely to impact temperature-related illness and death in the future, how health effects of temperature are highly relative and dependent on region, neighborhood, residence style/quality, demographics, and other elements of individuals and their behavior. Finally, it covers future research directions, including the targeted, individualized interventions that will become increasingly crucial to mitigate temperature-related health effects during an era of climate change. Read the full story here. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

POPs and Pubertal Timing: Evidence of Delayed Development

Endocrine disruptors have been eyed as potential drivers of a steady trend toward earlier puberty among girls worldwide in recent decades, particularly with regard to breast development. However, when the authors of a study in the October issue of EHP evaluated serum levels of three common classes of hormonally active persistent organic pollutants in relation to the timing of pubertal onset in girls, they found, contrary to initial hypotheses, that higher exposures were associated with later puberty, not earlier.

Continue reading "POPs and Pubertal Timing: Evidence of Delayed Development" here.

Using Parks to Improve Children’s Health -- and Everyone Else's

In the October issue of Environmental Health Perspectives I have a feature on the growing parks-and-health movement. It addresses a) what we know about the relationship between parks, nature, open space, and greenery and mental and physical health (on everyone but with a particular focus on children, this being a special children's-health issue); b) what we still need to figure out and what's currently occupying researchers, including identifying mechanisms and measuring/defining doses; and c) how this relationship is being implemented in public health programs such as Healthy Parks Healthy People, an NPS-sponsored umbrella program, and dozens of smaller, almost grassroots local efforts.

The nation's most comprehensive, collaborative, and developed program is right here in the Bay Area -- called, fittingly, Healthy Parks Healthy People -- with the primary sponsors being the Institute at the Golden Gate, an NPS-affiliated nonprofit based in Sausalito, and the East Bay Regional Parks District. Another leader is the City of San Francisco itself, which is the first and so far only in the world to formally adopt the use of parks within its public health program.

Read the full story, which appears on the cover this month's issue, right here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Arsenic and Blood Pressure: A Long-Term Relationship

In the August issue of Environmental Health Perspectives I have an article on a new study showing some of the best evidence to date of the effects of arsenic exposure via drinking water on blood pressure. Tens of millions of people in Bangladesh alone are exposed to unsafe levels of naturally occurring arsenic in their groundwater, resulting in a broad range of serious health effects including various cancers. This long-term study conducted in that country reveals how arsenic exposure can also elevate blood pressure levels over time, potentially leading to clinical outcomes including cardiovascular disease. On a scale as large as that in Bangladesh, this pathway represents another significant public health concern related to arsenic exposure in groundwater. Read the story online here.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Solution to the Spider Silk Mystery

A group of researchers out of UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco has found a solution to a problem that has stymied scientists for decades, and now they're bringing it to the masses. Their company, Bolt Threads, is based on a technology that uses yeast and fermentation to generate spider-silk proteins that can then be spun into thread and woven into garments. Apparel made of spider silk produced with Bolt's technology (in fact there's no other proven way to produce it on anything even approaching a large scale) should be available to consumers sometime next year. For more on spider silk, Bolt, and its technology, ready my story in Berkeley Engineer here.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

New feature in EHP: Reducing chemical migration in food packaging

My latest feature for EHP, published today in the July issue, addresses chemical migration from packaging into food. It's a significant, challenging issue affecting almost all packaged food in all types of containers -- much more than just plastic and BPA. Plenty of bright people are trying to find solutions that are proving mostly elusive so far. My story outlines some of the most vexing problems and potentially dangerous chemical exposures linked to food packaging, and shows how people around the country and the world are working to address them. If you're concerned about what's in the food you and your family are eating, I hope it's a worthy read. Find it here on EHP's website.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

New report predicts cost of Bay Area super storm

In this month's Estuary News, I have a short little item about a new report called Surviving the Storm, by the Bay Area Council Economic Institute with other public agencies and private firms. It includes some very interesting historical data and insightful observations about extreme weather and high-rainfall events in the Bay Area over the past 160 years or so, all of which contributes to the formulation of a specific hypothetical super storm, which the authors then modeled to determine its approximate economic impacts throughout the region. Their conclusion: a 100- to 200-year storm of the sort the authors dream up would cause at least $10.4 billion in damages. You can find the report at the above link, and my article ("Pretty Penny for Extreme Event") on page 8 of the June issue of Estuary News (pdf).

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The mapping backpack

Here's a story I just wrote for the UC Berkeley College of Engineering on the development of an indoor-mapping backpack with a wide variety of potential uses, including building construction, commercial real estate, search and rescue, and energy audits for large buildings. It's a pretty neat tool that's been under development for a long time and is finally ready for commercialization. In fact, its primary developer, Berkeley prof Avideh Zakhor, is taking the next year off of teaching, along with a former student who also spent years on the project, to begin bringing it to market. Read all about it here.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Journalism fellowship on climate change inspires real estate columns on St. Louis

Last month I was one of 25 or so journalists selected nationwide to attend a fellowship on climate change and the news sponsored by the Metcalf Institute at the National Adaptation Forum in St. Louis. Over the course of three days I absorbed some great information, identified a number of promising story ideas, and found some helpful new sources.

But that's not all. I also was inspired by my trip to write about St. Louis in my next two real estate columns for the San Francisco Examiner. Something about the city moved me. Today I heard from my wife that one of her co-workers in San Francisco read my column and was similarly inspired by St. Louis, to the point that she joked (we think) she wanted to move there.

They're not about science or the environment, and only tangentially about real estate. What I was trying to convey was the importance of perspective, and the poison of the particular brands of provincialism and exceptionalism that are pervasive in parts of the Bay Area, especially within the San Francisco real estate industry.

Here's the first one, which ran 5/24, and the second one, which ran on 5/31.

A Busy June, Pt 3: New study confirms dangers of BPA substitute BPS

Finally, on the environmental health side, I recently completed a news article for Environmental Health Perspectives covering a new study, also published in the June issue, comparing cardiovascular effects of BPS in rats to those of BPA. The authors tested both chemicals on rat hearts, using identical experiments (the BPA study was previously published) and found them to have nearly identical effects. This doesn't prove human health effects, but it is concerning that BPA has been widely replaced in consumer goods and packaging with a chemical that is equally potent, at least as far as cardiovascular effects go. Other researchers have come to similar conclusions for other biological endpoints for both BPS and BPF, another common BPA "substitute." Read my article and find the full study here.

A Busy June, Pt 2: Cape Town travel piece

Back in February my family undertook an epic journey (epic considering the 45 or so hours in the air, all told, with two-year-old son in tow) to Cape Town for my sister's wedding. While the coming and going was hard, the staying was easy. We spent a full two weeks in Cape Town, which offered a great opportunity to soak up the vibe, see the sights, do the beaches, visit different neighborhoods, sample the cuisine and nightlife, and generally get a feel for the place. That combined with insights from my sister, who's been there a few years, and her new husband, a native South African (though not Capetonian), helped me put together this travel piece for Oakland magazine on the city. The California angle wasn't forced: I drew connections nearly everywhere we traveled in and around Cape Town. Indeed, South Africa's diverse metropolis is often compared to the Bay Area, but I sensed even more similarities to Los Angeles, including in the climate, size, geography, and culture of the city. Then you've got wineries, urban hiking trails, and dense older neighborhoods that seem to scream San Francisco. Read my full dispatch here.

A Busy June, Pt 1: Music and Geology in Marin Magazine

While I was slaving over articles the last two weeks that will appear in forthcoming issues of Environmental Health Perspectives, Estuary News, San Francisco Examiner, Haas NewsWire, and Berkeley Engineer, finishing touches were being put on stories I'd written earlier in the year for the June issues of Marin magazine, Oakland magazine, and Environmental Health Perspectives. Suffice to say, it's been a busy few months since the big trip to Cape Town (read all about it in Oakland mag). And heck, things were busy before that, too.

Part one of the recap includes two stories that ran in the June issue of Marin: a beautiful, hopefully enjoyable and educational piece (I know I learned a lot in reporting it) on the geologic highlights of Marin that freelance photographer Joseph Schell and I undertook together; and an interesting Q&A with accomplished Marin-based music producer Narada Michael Walden, who has collaborated with the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Carlos Santana, and many more. Give it a read; he's a far-out dude.

Of note, this issue also included the 10th-anniversary retrospective. I've been writing for Marin for nearly five years now, and the retrospective references a number of my previous features, including "Smart Meters, Dumb Idea," about resistance in Marin to PG&E's new wireless SmartMeters; "Quest for Zero," about one Marin resident's drive to build a large, luxurious, net-zero-energy home in Mill Valley; "My Generation," about the kids of Marin rock legends like Carlos Santana, Phil Lesh, and Tom Johnston (Doobie Brothers) who followed their famous parents into the music biz; "Up in Smoke," about the backlash against medical marijuana in liberal, if NIMBYish, Marin County; and, finally, a pair articles on Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's San Rafael studio Tamalpais Research Institute and GD bassist Phil Lesh's San Rafael venue/restaurant Terrapin Crossroads (I met them both!).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

New study finds cattle feedlots can be source of airborne antibiotic dispersal into environment

Typically what I write for Environmental Health Perspectives are in-depth investigative features of 2,500-3,000 words. This, on the other hand, is a 700-word "Science Selection" covering a new study published in the very same issue. It calls attention to one potential source of antibiotic resistance in the environment that may have implications for human health and certainly warrants further study, which the study's authors say they intend to pursue. Read my article here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Solving the Arsenic Crisis

Susan Amrose started out studying supernovae at Berkeley before transitioning to more earthly matters and, eventually, helping develop an innovative system to cheaply and effectively remove arsenic from the drinking water of potentially tens of millions of people in South Asia. I wrote about Amrose and her high-impact research for Berkeley Engineer in the latest issue. Read the story online here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Human health effects of ocean plastic pollution?

In September 2014 I attended the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Ocean Science Journalism Fellowship. One of many scientists we were introduced to was Tracy Mincer, whose research into microbial communities on marine plastics eventually led me -- via a route I can't quite recall -- to the the subject of this story: potential human health effects of marine plastics. I interviewed him at the very early stages of sussing out this angle, but I ended up so far from where I began that I didn't end up using any of his quotes or research. I guess that's a sign of a good story: I chased it and watched it evolve and take shape, rather than setting out with a preconceived notion of the storyline. What I ended up with was a piece about research and the state of the science, rather than any definitive answers. The evidence to date is concerning, but many pieces remain missing. In the end, it seems, there's a good chance that marine plastics are playing some role in distributing chemicals and environmental pollutants throughout the foodchain, which we end up ingesting through seafood.