For all the mystery surrounding the 80 Navy SEALs who stormed into Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden last weekend, one member of the team has especially piqued America's interest: an anonymous four-legged commando, possibly "the nation's most courageous dog," according to the New York Times. The identities of the elite Special Forces troops remain closely guarded, but it has slipped out that one of them is a dog, the Times reports, most likely either a German shepherd or a Belgian Malinois. And the inclusion of a dog on such a high-stakes mission highlights how important man's best friend has become in fighting man's worst enemies, military experts say.

"The capability they bring to the fight cannot be replicated by man or machine," says Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and a longtime advocate of more dogs in the military. "By all measures of performance, their yield outperforms any asset we have in our industry." There are many ways the dog could have helped the SEALs carry out the mission in Abbottabad, from checking bin Laden's compound for hidden explosives to sniffing out anyone hiding in a closet or a "spider hole," a la Saddam Hussein. "Dogs are very good at detecting people inside of a building," says Maj. William Roberts, who leads the Defense Department's Military Working Dog Center in Texas. Plus, if bin Laden or anyone else had tried to make a break for it, a dog would be useful for tracking him down, the Times adds, since a shepherd or a Malinois can run twice as fast as a human. "When the dogs go after a suspect, they're trained to bite and hold them," says Sgt. Kelly Mylott, the kennel master at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. "Different dogs do different things. But whatever they do, it's very difficult for that person to go any further." Plus, she adds, sometimes just having a dog on the scene adds an intangible fear factor. "Dogs can be an amazing psychological deterrent," she says.

While the training of dogs for Navy SEAL units and other Special Ops teams is a secretive business, the Times points out their main job is usually "finding explosives and conducting searches and patrols." And as the Sun newspaper reports, these dogs often wear ballistic body armor that can withstand both single- and double-edged knives, as well as other protective gear to shield them from shrapnel and gunfire. Some also wear waterproof tactical vests featuring infrared and night-vision cameras, letting the SEALs see what they see, as well as speakers to let handlers communicate with the dogs from a distance. "Dogs are relied upon to provide early warning for potential hazards," says Maj. Wes Ticer, a spokesman for U.S. Special Operations Command, "many times saving the lives of the Special Operations Forces with whom they operate."

(Sources: New York Times, Fox News, the Sun, Gizmodo)


For anyone who thinks environmental protection is too expensive, researchers from the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine have some sobering news: Children's health problems caused by air pollution, toxic chemicals and other environmental pollutants cost the U.S. roughly $76 billion per year. Outlined in the journal Health Affairs, the new study reveals that environmental health problems now make up about 3.5 percent of the country's entire health care costs, up from 2.8 percent in 1997.

"Left unchecked, these preventable environmental factors will continue to harm the health of our children and push up health-care costs," study author Leonardo Trasande says in a journal news release. "By updating environmental regulations and laws aimed at protecting the public's health, we can reduce the toll taken by such factors on children's health and the economy." Trasande and his colleagues studied the cost of childhood cancers, as well as chronic conditions such as asthma, autism, attention deficit disorder and intellectual disability, that have been linked at least partly to environmental contamination in water, air, soil and food. They found that lead poisoning costs the U.S. $50.9 billion annually, autism $7.9 billion, mercury pollution $5.1 billion, and childhood cancer $95 million, among other health problems. 

In a related study also published in the May issue of Health Affairs, researchers from the University of Michigan report that schools in areas with the highest levels of industrial air pollution also have the lowest attendance rates — a sign of poor health — and the highest ratio of students who fail to meet the state's educational testing standards. "Our findings underscore the need to expand the concept of environmental justice to include children as a vulnerable population," the study's authors wrote. "Moreover, our findings show that children of color are disproportionately at risk. There is a need for proactive school policies that will protect children from exposure to unhealthy levels of air pollution and other environmental hazards."

(Sources: HealthDay, e! Science News)


For the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan, emergency workers entered the No. 1 reactor at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant on Thursday, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. says. The crews began an effort to install six ventilation devices that can absorb radioactive isotopes from the air inside the reactor building, TEPCO spokesman Taisuke Tomikawa tells the Los Angeles Times. Because there's still a high risk of radiation exposure, two- and three-person teams will work in 10-minute shifts while inside the reactor, NHK reports.

The goal is to reduce radiation levels enough that workers can replace the reactor's tsunami-stricken cooling systems, which have allowed nuclear fuel to overheat and triggered several hydrogen explosions in the days after the quake. Remote-controlled robots have scoured the reactor's interior in recent weeks, testing radiation levels to make sure it was safe for humans to enter. One robot detected radiation levels of roughly 50 millisieverts per hour inside Unit 1's reactor building in mid-April, still too high for workers to enter. Follow-up tests since then have showed a drop in radiation, but "safe" is still a strong word to use, which is why the workers are operating in such brief shifts for now. The workers are wearing full-body radiation suits and 28-pound air tanks, and are lugging around 30-pound fire extinguishers in case of an explosion, the Times reports.

It should take two to three days to install the ventilation system, Tomikawa says, and work to set up the reactor's new cooling system may begin as soon as May 16. If that goes smoothly, the cooling system could lower temperatures in the reactor's steamy core and speed up the plant's recovery process, which TEPCO officials have said could take a total of up to nine months. After replacing the cooling system at reactor No. 1, TEPCO plans to move on to reactors No. 2 and No. 3 sometime in the next two months. Meanwhile, Tomikawa acknowledges that high radiation levels have recently been detected in the Pacific Ocean as deep as 100 feet, but insists local seafood remains safe. "We continue to monitor radioactivity levels in [skipwords]fish[/skipwords] and other sea organisms," he says, adding that the tests will now be conducted once a month. "We're not saying that it's zero, but we think we've been able to avoid the high radiation levels we had before."

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Kyodo News, NHK)


A slow-motion disaster continues to unfold along the Lower Mississippi River, CNN reports, even as the region enjoys a brief respite from weeks of heavy rain. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is moving ahead with plans to finish breaching a levee near [skipwords]Birds Point, Mo., using drastic measures to ease unprecedented pressure from floodwaters and save river towns such as Cairo, Ill. The Corps plans to blow open a final crevasse in the Birds[/skipwords] Point-New Madrid levee today, completing a project that began Monday night, letting water flow across 130,000 acres of Missouri farmland instead of through more densely populated areas.

While many of the farmers whose land and houses are being inundated aren't happy about the plan, residents of Cairo say it has likely saved the town of 2,800 people from being destroyed. The Ohio River near Cairo has dropped nearly 2 feet since Monday afternoon, CNN reports, and Army Corps officials say its level would likely be up to 3 feet higher now if the levee had been left intact. Cairo remains under a mandatory evacuation order, however, while six other communities are under voluntary evacuation notices, according to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. 

While Cairo may be spared, though, riverside communities in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana still face a high threat of rising floodwaters, as the Mississippi River's record-breaking crest continues growing and flowing south. More than 20 miles of westbound Interstate 40 in eastern Arkansas were closed this morning due to flooding, state police tell CNN, and eastbound lanes will likely be closed later today. The recent wave of thunderstorms that has helped push the Mississippi to historic heights is expected to continue into June, according to the National Weather Service, suggesting the region still has many weeks of fighting floodwaters ahead.

(Sources: ReutersCNN, AccuWeather)


First "thru-hiker" of Appalachian Trail dies, Newport Chemical Depot begins destroying nerve gas, and more.

Russell McLendon

Want to receive the day's eco-news in your inbox? Click here to sign up for the Daily Briefing newsletter.

Photo (U.S. soldier with dog patrolling Al Mahmudiayh, Iraq, in 2008): ZUMA Press

Photo (sign outside a chemical plant in Donaldsonville, La.): ZUMA Press

Photo (TEPCO workers direct a remote-control robot on April 13): ZUMA Press

Photo (flooded cars in Cairo, Ill., on May 4): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.