Thursday, December 15, 2016

Latest issue of Estuary News

Estuary News magazine is a great, if little-known source for inside stories on the San Francisco Bay and the Delta. Informed by science, policy, and expert, on-the-ground sources, it tells stories of pollution, restoration, water, infrastructure, ecosystems, and more. Like many Bay Area scientists, elected officials, and environmental-agency staffers, I read every issue to cover to cover. The latest, published today, includes a story by yours truly starting on page 5. Titled "Banking Fish Food?" it addresses ongoing efforts to bolster food supplies for native salmon and smelt in a heavily altered and often dysfunctional Delta.

Monday, December 5, 2016

My thoughts on #Oaklandfire

While I never directly participated in Oakland's "underground" art/warehouse scene, I wrote and edited countless articles about it as a reporter and editor at the East Bay Express, a free alt-weekly serving Oakland, Berkeley, and surrounding East Bay communities. During most of the years I worked there, from 2005 to 2013, our very offices were housed in a converted warehouse in West Oakland.

Throughout this time, Oakland's underground arts scene, warehouse parties, and live/work lofts in East and particularly West Oakland served as a refuge for a vibrant, nationally renowned artistic community nonetheless living on the margins of society. Their efforts produced not only great local art and a safe haven for people of many walks of life but also contributed to the success of the increasingly mainstream Burning Man festival and, in an indirect way, to the larger artistic and culinary renaissance that has fostered considerable economic development in downtown Oakland and many Oakland neighborhoods over the past decade or so.

In that sense this community has become a victim of its own success, as skyrocketing real estate values have further threatened the viability of the makeshift shelters, studios, and venues that allow it to exist.

This tragic fire is a huge blow to a community that belongs to not only Oakland but all of the Bay Area. In a broad sense, it is our region's artistic heart and soul. Much emanates from there that may not always be apparent or appreciated. Beyond the immediate and terrible loss of life, this fire could well have long-term implications for a movement that has already been priced out of San Francisco and is now threatened by a similar fate in much of Oakland.

I don't have any answers, but did want to share these thoughts from a very important time in my life spent living in Oakland and covering (as a relative outsider) music and arts for the local free weekly. For those inclined to read more, here's a good article at KQED -- and one from the East Bay Express archives linked therein.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In September Issue of Estuary News: "Purple Pipe to Wetlands Will Flow Soon"

Yes, I know it's now days from December. But I never posted this when it originally came out. And I like to get things on the record. So here it is: a tiny article I wrote for the September issue of Estuary News. It provides an update on salt pond restoration efforts (using recycled water) at the Napa-Sonoma Marsh. Find "Purple Pipe to Wetlands Will Flow Soon" on page 11 here. I previously wrote about the project in more detail in the June 2014 issue of Estuary News (page 12).

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Heat Can Be Deadly: Evaluating the Effectiveness of Montreal's Heat Action Plan

Yesterday I posted a link to my feature on the cover of this month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives. Within the issue you will find another article with my byline, one I wrote months ago that finally made it into the journal. (These news stories, called Science Selections in EHP, run in the same issue as the paper they're covering, so if the paper gets held up so does the article.) It's on a study evaluating the effectiveness of program developed in Montreal, Canada, to reduce health effects, particularly mortality, associated with extreme heat. Turns out the program was pretty effective in its early years. Another outcome of the study was the development of a novel method for evaluating the effectiveness of these sorts of public health programs, which are increasingly common worldwide with global average temperatures on the rise and extreme heat events increasingly common and severe. Read more here. And if you'd like to learn more about the health effects of heat (and cold, which, it turns out, is responsible for even more deaths than heat), check out my November 2015 feature on the subject.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Breast Cancer and the Environment: Story 2 of 2

As promised here's part two of my post from a few days ago describing a pair of recent stories addressing environmental factors in breast cancer. Titled "Institutes in the Lead: Identifying Environmental Factors in Breast Cancer," it appears on the cover of the November issue of Environmental Health Perspectives and addresses the roles of the NIEHS and NCI in leading research nationwide in the field. My story was also highlighted in the daily environmental health newsletter Above the Fold, which is always cool. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Breast Cancer and the Environment: Story 1 of 2

This summer and fall I worked on a pair of stories summarizing research into environmental factors in breast cancer. I don't recall how I first came across the field, but it's been fascinating to learn about all the work that's been done, and all that's still left to be done. Breast cancer is a complex disease, and understanding the role of a lifetime of chemical exposures (beginning in utero) through air, water, and food in instigating or supporting its development is an incredible challenge.

My two stories highlight the work of the nation's two leading lights in the field. The first article I worked on, and the second to be published (in a few days in the November issue of Environmental Health Perspectives) addresses work done at or funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences or NIEHS (often in partnership with the National Cancer Institute, another entity under the National Institutes of Health or NIH).

While researching that story I encountered the California Breast Cancer Research Program or CBCRP, which, like NIEHS, focuses its breast cancer search on environmental factors -- as opposed to screening and treatment, which dominate essentially all other large breast cancer research and advocacy groups in the country. So I wrote a second, smaller story for UC Berkeley alumni magazine California about the CBCRP (which is housed at the University of California Office of the President or UCOP and funds a number of Berkeley-affiliated researchers). That one came out today.

Together they paint what I hope is an accurate and fairly complete overview of this fascinating field at the intersection of environmental health and one of our nation's most vexing diseases.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Air Pollution and Preterm Birth: A Potential Mechanism

From my latest article for the journal Environmental Health Perspectives:
Intrauterine inflammation (IUI) is a risk factor for a variety of adverse birth outcomes, and some investigators have hypothesized it could also play a role in the risk of being born preterm or underweight. Several other studies have demonstrated that a pregnant woman’s exposure to fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) appears to increase her baby’s risk of being born preterm or underweight. A new study bridges these lines of inquiry and offers evidence that IUI is associated with exposure to PM2.5. Coauthor Marsha Wills-Karp, a professor of environmental health sciences at The Johns Hopkins University, says, “The study gives us some indication that there’s an actual change in the placenta and … inflammation occurring in close proximity to the fetus that is associated with exposure to air pollution.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Berkeley Startup Helps People Find Out What They’re Drinking

Scientific breakthroughs can be good business. Just license and commercialize that whiz-bang new technology you've developed, and you're off -- ready to make millions as an entrepreneur. But in the case of Berkeley-based SimpleWater, licensing a novel technology developed at Cal -- a method for removing arsenic from small rural water systems -- didn't pan out when an anticipated EPA grant to demonstrate the innovation in a small Central Valley town fell through.

The folks at SimpleWater say they still like their technology and hope to someday get it off the ground, but for now they've switched gears to a less capital-intensive product called TapScore. TapScore is a service, really, and it allows residential customers (especially those who get their drinking water from a private well) a convenient, relatively affordable way to have their water professionally tested for contaminants. The water experts at TapScore then evaluate the results and provide recommendations on point-of-use solutions (like under-sink filters) to remove anything harmful. 

Read more about the company and the service at California Magazine, where my story on TapScore/SimpleWater appears in the Fall 2016 issue

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Q&A on Homebrewed Drugs

Morphine comes from Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy — but one day soon it might be grown in a lab. In 2015, UC Berkeley bioengineering professor John Dueber and students engineered a yeast strain to convert glucose into reticuline, a key compound in the plant. Soon other researchers demonstrated subsequent steps toward producing thebaine, an opiate closely related to codeine and morphine. The development holds both great promise and great risk, Dueber says. The ability to easily synthesize powerful drugs from glucose through fermentation could be dangerous in the wrong hands. But this pathway also has the potential to lead to more-effective, less-addictive painkillers, as well as new miracle molecules for treating cancer, hypertension and more. Read more about this research and its implications with in a brief Q&A with Dueber at Berkeley Engineer.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Two new Science Selections in Environmental Health Perspectives

The September issue of EHP contains two news articles on two newly published papers (aka Science Selections) by yours truly.
The first addresses a dengue fever forecast model developed by and for the government of Singapore. Dengue is the world's fastest-growing vector-borne disease, with a reported 30-fold increase in incidence over the last 50 years. It's a real problem in Singapore.
The second addresses a longitudinal study evaluating the relationship between exposure to PM2.5 and kidney function in older men. It offers early evidence that PM2.5 is associated with lower kidney function and a higher rate of kidney function over time.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Does Air Pollution Cause Premature Birth?

The relationship between PM 2.5 exposure and preterm birth is an unknown, with some studies showing an association and others not. Hoping to get a better handle on the question, researchers from Rhode Island and New York evaluated 258,000 births in New York City using a novel approach that accounted for the precise location in the city of the hospital where the birth took place. However, even while controlling for potential confounders related to birth hospital, they ended up with null and negative results. Either they missed additional important confounders or the relationship is indeed null -- a conclusion that many other reserachers in the field would be eager to dispute. Read more in my latest Science Selection for Environmental Health Perspectives.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Shallow Waters: How a first-of-its kind regional partnership could save the San Rafael Canal and Petaluma River

As a resident of Petaluma and regular reader of the (weekly) Petaluma Argus-Courier, I'm very aware of the dire shape the Petaluma River is in in regards to dredging. Dredging funds have all but dried up, businesses and boaters have been impacted, the river continues to fill with silt year after year, and no solution is in sight. The San Rafael Canal isn't in much better shape, though it's much smaller and has less commercial traffic. Then there's the Napa River, which finally found some funding for a dredge this year but is, generally speaking, in the same boat (nice pun!).

That's why local agencies in Sonoma, Marin, and Napa counties have decided to band together to plead their case as one to the Army Corps of Engineers, which historically -- for many decades, in fact -- has been responsible for funding and arranging the dredging of each individual waterway. The proposed new approach would involve dredging all North Bay shallow-draft waterways at once, on a regular schedule, with some potential financial contributions from local governments. The hope is that between the improved efficiencies and economics of scale and partial local financial support, all parties involved will be able to settle the matter once and for all (or at least for the next few decades) and get these waterways back in navigable shape.

Read more -- and specifically about the situation down at the San Rafael Canal -- in my article in the Aug 2016 issue of Marin Magazine.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

EBMUD's aging water pipes

Drinking-water safety isn't only about what's in it (see my last story on chloramines), but also what it has to travel through to reach your home. And old and failing pipes mean not only leaks and wasted water but also potential health hazards. In my latest story for Estuary News, I address the East Bay Municipal Utility District's efforts to better maintain and manage its aging infrastructure and compare with those of a much younger water system in the Santa Clara Valley. Read the full story here.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Q&A: Lead, chloramines and drinking water safety

Drinking water safety is a hot topic these days, and I've written a few stories on the subject for different outlets over the past couple months. The first to be published, a Q&A with UC Berkeley water expert David Sedlak on Flint, Stockton, and the role of chloramines in both protecting and potentially endangering public health, was published in Berkeley Engineer last week. Find it here.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Emerging Waste-to-Energy Technologies: Solid Waste Solution or Dead End?

I've written about waste-to-energy technologies a number of times, for a few different outlets, but never with as much detail as in my latest feature for Environmental Health Perspectives. It always proves to be a popular subject, and this story helps explain why: not only do recycling, landfilling, and incineration/conversion have implications for energy and resources, climate change, environment and human health, product and packaging design, and land use, but they also represent deeply ingrained, and sometimes sharply conflicting views of what, exactly, waste is. Japan has a different idea than Sweden, and the United States has its own, too. Zoom in even closer and you find various camps with their own ideas, their own priorities, their own opinions of the good and bad symbolized by various approaches. After all, technology isn't neutral, and as Marshall McLuhan declared in 1967, the medium is the message. My story investigates the new technologies at the heart of the waste-to-energy debate and lays out the broader issues and arguments they invite as waste management in the United States evolves in the 21st century. Read more here.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Using thermoelectrics to convert waste heat into clean power

My latest article for Berkeley Engineer is on UC Berkeley-born, Hayward-based Alphabet Energy and its promising new thermoelectric devices, the most advanced of their kind in the world. The company's technology offers the exciting potential of harnessing incredible amounts of power from waste heat in cars and industrial engines and generators, among other potential sources, that's otherwise lost forever, by efficiently converting it into electricity. The company's solid-state devices have no moving parts and zero emissions and can function well just about anywhere combustion-exhaust is present. For more on the company and to learn how thermoelectrics work, read the full story here.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

A Satellite View of Pollution on the Ground: Long-Term Changes in Global Nitrogen Dioxide

I have a news story out in this month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives on a groundbreaking new study offering a global view of long-term changes in ground-level nitrogen dioxide, assessed by satellite using remote sensing instruments. What it finds is intriguing, if not exactly shocking: while levels have been reduced over North America and Europe, they have increased by a far larger amount over East Asia (primarily China). And on the whole, far more people live in areas where the air got wore than live in regions that cleaned up their air -- by a wide margin. "You can see on a broad scale how we’ve sort of just shifted this problem around,” one of my sources said. Read the full article here.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

UC Berkeley's Center for Effective Global Action: Where science meets activism

Haven't contributed to Berkeley's Breakthroughs magazine in a little while, so I'm happy to post my latest, an article on the Center for Effective Global Action. Based at Cal, with more than 60 member researchers at Stanford and seven other West Coast universities, CEGA is geared toward using research-derived, science-based tools and evidence to drive global development policy and programming, often taking its cues from major human rights funders like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development. “It’s not only trying to disseminate the research and promote the scale-up; I like to say it’s steering the ship toward problems that society has recognized,” said CEGA executive director and cofounder Temina Madon. “We try to be nimble and adaptive and figure out where there are gaps that we can usefully fill.” Read the full story here.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Despite "Airpocalypse," China's Air Quality on the Mend

My latest Science Selection news article for Environmental Health Perspectives covers new research showing that over the last eight or years, on the whole -- including in Beijing, the Chinese capital recently beset with all-time-high particulate-matter levels -- China's air quality is actually improving. True, these recent spikes have been severe, but averaged over time and space, new data blended from satellite instruments and ground monitors show that average PM2.5 levels nationwide and in a number of key regions including Beijing have been gradually declining since approximately 2008. As discussed in my article, the reasons for this are manifold and hard to pin down, including meteorological factors potentially influenced by climate change. And in some regions of China where coal-burning and heavy industry have a heavy hold -- including one just outside the Beijing metro area, the source of some of the city's problems -- PM2.5 levels climbed steadily in the years prior to the nationwide 2007/8 inflection point and continued to do so afterward, bucking the trend and showing that significant challenges still remain. Read the full article here.