For decades, sunscreens sold in the U.S. have boasted a variety of benefits that aren't always true, but that's about to change, the New York Times reports. The Food and Drug Administration unveiled new rules Tuesday that aim to clarify the confusing thicket of bottles in sunscreen aisles, making it easier to understand what they can (and can't) do. The rules have been under consideration at the FDA since 1978, the Times notes, an era when "most beach lotions were intended to encourage tanning, not protect against it."

The new FDA rules, which take effect in 2012, mandate that sunscreens protect equally against both kinds of solar radiation — UVB and UVA — if they want to advertise "broad spectrum" protection, a term that's currently thrown around more loosely. (UVB rays cause burning and UVA rays cause wrinkling, the Times explains, and both cause cancer.) The rules will also prohibit sunscreen makers from touting their products as "waterproof" or "sweatproof," since no sunscreen really is. Instead, the bottles will be allowed to list the number of minutes for which the sunscreen remains water-resistant, based on test results. Sunscreens will also be required to have a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 15 to legally claim they help prevent sunburn and reduce the risks of skin cancer and early skin aging. But the FDA has decided not to weigh in yet on the "SPF arms race," as the Times describes it, in which manufacturers are rolling out sunscreens with ever-higher SPFs, some up to 100, even though there's no evidence of protection beyond SPF 50. It is considering ruling on that issue, but for now is just seeking further comment from the public.

"We think this is going to be much easier for the consumer to understand," Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's drug center, tells the Times. "All they're going to need to do is pick an SPF number and then make sure that it's broad spectrum." Dermatologists are reportedly also enthusiastic about the changes. "Now we'll be able to tell patients which sunscreens to get," says a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. More than 2 million Americans are treated annually for basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, and more than 68,000 are diagnosed with melanoma. While it took three decades for the new rules to surface, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., says they're better late than never. "The FDA has been sitting on these proposals for many, many years," Reed says. "This is a major step, and I'm glad they've done it."

(Sources: New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, FDA)


The issue of whether to turn Nevada's Yucca Mountain into a nuclear-waste dump has long been a radioactive one — even though no radioactive materials have ever been dumped there. And it just got even hotter, with a watchdog report accusing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman of improper behavior in shutting down work on the planned nuclear repository. While there's no proof Gregory Jaczko broke the law, the news has still led Republicans in Congress to demand his resignation, the Wall Street Journal reports.

According to an inspector general's report, Jaczko was "not forthcoming with" the NRC's four other commissioners about his plans to stop work on a safety evaluation for Yucca Mountain, and even "strategically" withheld information from his colleagues as part of a broad effort to end the project. Still, the inspector general also found that Jaczko did not break the law, leading some congressional Democrats to argue the report disproves Republican claims that he acted illegally. Most GOP lawmakers weren't buying it, though. "He violated the law," asserted Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, on Tuesday. "I do think he needs to step down," added Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky. For his part, Jaczko disputes the report's conclusions that he wasn't forthcoming, and even rejects its criticism of his management style. "I believe I was forthcoming with my fellow commissioners," he tells the WSJ. "I'm very comfortable with how this went down. This decision was a wake-up call that what we do matters." Yet even some Democrats, who have largely supported Jaczko, acknowledge the report has revealed some shortcomings. "Obviously he should work on his interpersonal skills," Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said Tuesday.

The long, twisting saga of Yucca Mountain dates back long before the Obama administration — a tortuous path that's outlined well by a three-page article in the Washington Post today. Much of the resistance against the waste dump has been led by Nevada politicians, namely Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in recent years. Jaczko used to work for Reid, and he was appointed to the NRC by President Obama, who is close with Reid and campaigned on the promise of shutting down Yucca Mountain for good. Now its future — along with that of U.S. nuclear power in general — looks as murky as ever.

(Sources: Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Washington Post)


Just when it seems like there's no escape from global warming, the sun may be about to bail out the Earth — at least temporarily. According to research presented at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society's Solar Physics Division, the sun seems poised to take an extended siesta after its current solar cycle ends, potentially offering life on Earth a grace period before the worst of global warming sets in. The cool period would be similar to the "Little Ice Age" that chilled the planet from 1645 to 1715, the Los Angeles Times reports.

"There is evidence that the sun goes into periods like that 10 percent to 15 percent of the time, and we may be due for another one," a NASA physicist who wasn't involved with the research tells the Times. "They may be right," he adds, although he argues more data are needed to confirm the conclusions. The sun is currently in a period of increased sunspot activity, part of a roughly 11-year cycle in which it oscillates between high and low magnitudes. This high-power period is expected to wrap up sometime in 2013, and would normally be followed by another one beginning around 2020. But the researchers say they have evidence that may not happen, with the sun instead easing into an extended quiet period similar to the 70-year Little Ice Age.

While some experts are cautious to embrace the prediction, it is supported by three separate studies presented at the AAS meeting, the Times reports, lending it more credibility than such a theory might normally have. "The fact that there are three separate lines of evidence all pointing in the same direction is very compelling," says a co-author of one of the studies — although he acknowledges that, if such a Little Ice Age does happen again, researchers have no way of predicting how long it might last.

(Source: Los Angeles Times)


The U.S. West is a world of extremes this spring, with historic Missouri River floods spilling onto the Great Plains and severe wildfires scorching the Southwest. Arizona's Wallow Fire (pictured) is now the largest in state history, CNN reports, and is expanding into New Mexico even as firefighters gain fleeting control over it. Meanwhile, workers are racing to save the town of Hamburg, Iowa, from devastating floods after the Missouri River punched holes in a nearby levee. The mile-wide Missouri is even threatening herds of pronghorn antelopes, whose survival is in doubt because they're trapped on the wrong side of the river, USA Today reports.

In Arizona, the Wallow Fire has surpassed the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire as the state's largest-ever, but there is reason for optimism, with officials announcing Tuesday the blaze is now 18 percent contained. It has destroyed 32 structures so far, but has mainly been restricted to ponderosa forest and other uninhabited areas, resulting in relatively few injuries to humans. "The great news on this incident is we still have a total of seven injuries and they're all minor," says fire incident command spokesman Peter Frenzen. Still, strong winds could easily spread it into new areas in the bone-dry region, a problem common to many wildfires burning across the Southwest. As the AP reports, it highlights an unusually busy wildfire season — 31,650 fires have burned more than 4 million acres so far in 2011, up from 27,077 fires this time a year ago, which had burned about a third as much acreage.

To the north, crews working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were piling dirt to fortify a backup levee outside Hamburg on Tuesday, hoping to raise it by at least 3 feet. The Missouri River is rushing toward the town after it breached a levee near the Missouri-Iowa border on Monday. If the water gets through, it could inundate Hamburg with up to 10 feet of water and linger for months. Even farther north, in Montana, wildlife officials are monitoring Canadian pronghorn antelope that face dismal odds as they struggle to cross the raging river and get back home. "You can see them walking up to the water, a dozen to a few hundred, gathered and looking to the north side of the river," wildlife photographer Michael Forsberg tells USA Today. "The drive to migrate is very strong in these animals."

For a lighter look at the West's dual disasters, check out this cartoon from the Washington Post's Tom Toles.

(Sources: CNN, Associated Press, USA Today, Washington Post)


An earthquake and volcano rattle the Philippines, Paul and Yoko join forces for Meat-Free Mondays, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (sunbathers in Huntington Beach, Calif.): Michael Oh/Flickr

Photo (Yucca Mountain): U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Photo (solar flare): Brookhaven National Laboratory

Photo (smoke from Wallow Fire on June 10): ZUMA Press

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

Daily Briefing: Wed. 6/15/2011
New rules for sunscreen, U.S. nuke chief under fire, sun may take siesta, and more.