As the Mississippi River continues flooding to historic heights this week, it may be hard to think of it as anything but a destructive force. But if it wasn't for the Big Muddy, there would be no Louisiana — the river built up the state over centuries by depositing dirt it collected on its 2,320-mile journey south. And as the Washington Post reports, the recent triple whammy of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, the Gulf oil spill in 2010 and this year's historic river floods have reignited efforts to restore the river to its natural state. Doing so, advocates say, would offer its own triple whammy of perks: rehabbing ecosystems, relieving pressure on levees and rebuilding coastlines.

"We want to grab every opportunity to put sediment into the wetlands," says University of Louisiana at Lafayette ecologist Robert Twilley. The Mississippi lost much of its sediment-spreading powers last century — costing Louisiana about 1,500 square miles of coastline — as engineers straightened out its natural curves and built flood-control levees to prevent the Great Flood of 1927 from happening again. Those levees are now helping stop the 2011 floods from reaching 1927 levels, but many of the river-restoration plans being discussed would also reduce flood pressure, the Post points out, making levees' jobs easier. One idea involves rebuilding the 80-year-old Bonnet Carre Spillway north of New Orleans, which was opened last week to relieve pressure on levees. The spillway works by diverting a sixth of the Mississippi into Lake Ponchartrain, and restoration advocates want to lower its gates so they could be opened under normal conditions, too, letting water and sediment flow into surrounding wetlands. An even more ambitious project would create a 100-mile "third delta" west of New Orleans, although its $1 billion to $3 billion price tag has been a deal breaker so far.

"The idea of using the river to restore the coast in a major way has been on the table for a long time," University of New Orleans river expert Denise Reed tells the Post. "But it hasn't moved forward." The expense of big projects like the third delta is one reason for the inaction, but there is a precedent for smaller-scale versions: The Old River Control in north Louisiana diverts 30 percent of the Mississippi westward into the Atchafalaya River, providing extra sediment that has built about 18 square miles of new land since 1970, the Post reports. And with climate change poised to worsen the region's flood problems in the future, some experts say we may now have a brief window to fix the Mississippi before it's too late. "Big floods are going to become more common," says John Day, a coastal scientist at Louisiana State University. "In the future, we'll lose control of the river."

(Sources: Washington Post, CNN, National Park Service)


Many car seats, highchairs, nursing pillows and other children's products sold in the U.S. are made with a chemical suspected of causing cancer, the New York Times reports. The chemical, a flame retardant known as chlorinated Tris, was removed from children's pajamas in the 1970s due to health concerns, but now a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology reveals the same flame retardant is being used in an array of other products designed for babies and toddlers. 

"Why do you need a fire retardant in a nursing pillow?" says study co-author and biophysical chemist Arlene Blum. "The whole issue is, they are toxic chemicals that are in our homes at high levels, and right now, people don't know much about it." Blum was also involved in research that originally led to chlorinated Tris being removed from pajamas in the '70s; while the chemical wasn't banned at the time, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission now says it "may pose a significant health risk to consumers." In the new study, Blum and her colleagues found that foam samples from more than one-third of the 101 products they tested contained chlorinated Tris, while 80 products overall contained chemical flame retardants of some kind, including some that are legal but considered toxic. In one example, flame retardants accounted for 12 percent of the weight in a foam changing pad, the Times reports, although most products were around 3 to 5 percent flame retardants.

Advocates for the children's-products industry counter that "tough federal safety standards" have inspired companies to be so liberal with flame retardants. "Not only do these safety standards contain flammability requirements, they also restrict the use of substances that are harmful or toxic and to which children might be exposed," the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association says in a statement, pointing out that chlorinated Tris has not been banned by the government. Rather, a related compound called brominated Tris is outlawed, after it was also found in 1970s pajamas. The American Chemical Council also points out the study doesn't address whether children absorb flame retardants from the products, only that the chemicals are there.

(Sources: New York Times, e! Science News)


A wave of exploding watermelons in China has become a flashpoint over agricultural safety in the fast-growing country, the Guardian reports, as the problem is traced back to forchlorfenuron, a chemical growth accelerator. According to a report by state broadcaster CCTV, watermelon farmers sprayed forchlorfenuron on their crops too late in the season and during wet conditions, causing the fruit to explode like "landmines." This comes amid a push by Chinese media to expose unseemly farming practices, the Guardian reports, following other recent discoveries such as cadmium in rice, melamine in milk, arsenic in soy sauce, bleach in mushrooms and borax in pork.

Farmers say forchlorfenuron can speed up their harvest by two weeks, and increase their melons' size and price by more than 20 percent. The chemical has been heavily used in China since the 1980s, and while experts say it's not appropriate for watermelons, it's not considered to be a health risk on its own. "In general we don't suggest chemicals with plant hormones be used on watermelons, as they are very sensitive. They might end up looking very strange and people will not want to buy them," says Cui Jian, director of the vegetable research institute at Qingdao Academy of Agricultural Science. "The taste won't be as good and storage is more difficult, but it should not harm anyone's health." Still, as Greenpeace's Pan Jing adds, China's booming population has made the government skeptical of restricting any chemical that can boost food supplies. "The government is aware of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertilizer," he says, "but they are also concerned about food output."

As the Guardian reports, some Chinese farmers have resorted to growing their own food separately from what they sell, opting not to use chemicals on their personal crops. "I feel there is nothing safe I can eat now because people are in too much of a hurry to make money," complains one farmer in Hebei. And while many consumers in China try to avoid dangerous chemicals by buying foreign foods instead of Chinese-grown varieties, the Fruit Industry Association of Guangdong province reportedly told reporters this week that, due to inaccurate labeling, "most 'imported' fruit are grown in China."

(Source: Guardian)


Australia is home to a menagerie of unique wildlife, but in recent centuries it has also become a giant invasive-species experiment. Everything from rabbits to cane toads has proliferated and pillaged across the arid continent, taking advantage of its shortage of predators and abundance of space. This has created a flurry of creative plans to kill off the invaders, and as Discovery News reports, Australia is now thinking big to fight back against one of its biggest foreign pests: camels.

More than 1 million feral camels are wreaking havoc across the vast Australian desert, consuming what little water and vegetation they can find and making life harder for native wildlife. Originally brought over from India during the late 1800s to toil in the outback, camels were later rendered obsolete by modern machinery, becoming feral and doubling their population every eight or nine years. "They are desert-adapted animals," says Jan Ferguson, director of the group that oversees Australia's Feral Camel Management Project. "They adapt very well to our conditions." In addition to gobbling up resources, camels sometimes gather around water holes in such large numbers that a few fall in and die, fouling the water for everyone. They even "take pipes and air-conditioning units off of walls, and smash up toilet systems," Ferguson says. "There's no way you're ever going to eradicate them. They key thing is to keep the number controlled to minimize the environmental and cultural damage."

To do that, the Feral Camel Management Project has set up a website, CamelScan, that lets the public report feral camel sightings and damage using a tool based on Google Maps. The project aims to safeguard key areas of biodiversity and native habitat, Ferguson says, while rounding up the camels and using them for commercial purposes when possible, such as for pet food. Fences can also help, although biologist Murray McGregor notes that camels are persistent. "Very important sites can be fenced or exclusion barrier put on them," McGregor says. "But these are very strong animals. You have to put something that's quite extensive to keep them out. If they're after water, they will use everything they've got to get at it."

(Sources: Discovery News, CamelScan)


Three Mile Island gets its permit, Mount St. Helens awakens, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (Mississippi River floodwaters in Vicksburg, Miss.): ZUMA Press

Photo (baby lying on pillow): Elyse Lewin/Jupiter Images

Photo (woman selling watermelons in Huaibei, China): ZUMA Press

Photo (feral camels in Australia's Northern Territory): ZUMA Press

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

Daily Briefing: Wed. 5/18/2011
River rehab gains steam, melons explode in China, camels plague Australia, and chlorinated Tris may be infecting young children with cancer.