In today’s On the News segment: Barely 48 hours after the release of new safety standards for oil trains, an oil train derailed and exploded in North Dakota and proved that the rules don’t go far enough; the Church of England has divested from coal and tar sands companies; scientists are saying that the replacement chemicals for Teflon could be just as dangerous as Teflon itself; and more.
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You need to know this. Last week, the oil industry criticized new safety standards released by the US Department of Transportation. Right on cue, barely 48 hours later, an oil train derailed and exploded in North Dakota, and proved that the new standards don’t go far enough. Before last week, there had already been five oil train explosions in North America this year alone, and that number is likely to increase as more and more crude oil is shipped by train. In response to the numerous disasters, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has implemented new safety rules, which have Big Oil complaining about costs and transport time. The DOT has instituted a new, lower speed limit of 50 mph on trains carrying flammable materials, and a limit of 40 mph through urban areas. In addition, all trains carrying oil must have updated braking systems, better classification of materials, and operators must abide by new protocols. While those increased standards are marginally better, the ThinkProgress Blog points out that the new rules actually rescind one important safety requirement that went in to place last year. For a short time, railroads were required to tell states when flammable shipments were coming through, but these new rules leave that burden on the states by simply providing a phone number that officials can use to find out about potentially dangerous rail cars. So, it’s understandable that environmental groups and some lawmakers are upset about these new rules. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington State said that these new rules “let the oil trains roll.” She added, “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.” And she’s exactly right. The only safe oil trail is the one that doesn’t exist, and the only way to ensure the safety of our communities is to stop drilling for oil once and for all.
You may think that social media polarizes us when it comes to politics, but science says that is not necessarily the case. According to a new study by data scientists at Facebook, our political echo chamber is not as isolated as some may fear. Researchers analyzed the social media use of more than 10 million users for about six-months last year, and they found that our social networks do expose us to views different from our own. Scientists say that on average, about one quarter of our online friends hold different political views, and about one third of the news links in our online feed are from sites with opposing ideologies. Considering that almost 30 percent of American adults get their news from social media, it’s good to know that they’re being exposed to a range of ideas. While we may not always agree with our friends and family on the other side of the aisle, understanding where their beliefs come from makes it possible to find common ground. And that is the first step toward working together for the common good.
Universities aren’t the only ones dumping their fossil fuel investments. Last week, the Church of England announced that they have divested their financial holdings of investments in coal and tar sands companies. In his announcement about the move, Reverend Cannon Professor Richard Burridge said, “The Church has a moral responsibility to speak and act on both environmental stewardship and justice for the world’s poor who are most vulnerable to climate change.” According to The Guardian newspaper, if the Church divests the rest of their finances from fossil fuels, it would be the largest institution ever to do so. One-by-one, large institutions like churches and universities are realizing that they can’t be moral and be invested in the substances that are destroying our planet. It’s great to see that the Church of England is helping to lead the way to a cleaner, greener future.
Years ago, companies like DuPont banned the use of Teflon in their products because of health risks, but now, scientists are saying that the replacement chemicals could be just as dangerous. According to hundreds of environmental scientists and a top federal health official, a class of chemicals known as PFASs, which are used to make surfaces water-resistant, linger in our bloodstream and show cause for concern. Linda Birnbaum of the Department of Health and Human Services, said, “The question is, should these chemicals continue to be used in consumer products in the meantime, given their persistence in the environment?” And, 200 international scientists signed on to a statement calling on countries around the world to limit the use these chemicals. Of course, industry officials say that these chemicals are perfectly safe, but one has to question their motivation for defending an industry that made almost $20 billion in sales in 2013. Hopefully, regulators throughout the world will consider the science, and put the safety of people ahead of industry profits.
And finally… If you’ve ever wondered what happens when someone has an out-of-body experience, science is a lot closer to an answer. According to a new study in the journal Current Biology, our brains use so-called “GPS cells,” to determine our body’s location, and give us a feeling of “body ownership.” A neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden explained that body ownership “is a very basic experience that most of us take for granted in everyday life.” To test their theory, scientists used a brain scanner, some complicated camera work, and a stranger to create the illusion that the subject’s body was in a different spot in a room. They touched the stranger in the same spot as the subject, and created the feeling that their body was in another location. One of the researchers said, “It’s a very fascinating experience. It takes a couple of touches, and you suddenly feel like you’re in another part of the room.” The scientists were able to study the way that the hippocampus and so-called GPS cells reacted to the experiment, and watch the way that the brain reacted to the experience. While there is still a lot to learn about our brain functions, the science behind the out-of-body feeling is a lot closer to being understood.
And that’s the way it is for the week of May 11, 2015 – I’m Thom Hartmann, on Science & Green News.