New freelance writings: space policy debates, flawed flood maps, and harmful plastics

In case you missed them, check out my recent stories, from inadequate flood maps to contamination from plastics to space policy debates. Thanks to my editors for helping these pieces turn out so well.

 

Trump’s ‘America First’ Policies Won’t Work in Space

A communications satellite launched earlier this year. Some in the federal government consider space the next frontier for warfare. (Photo courtesy of United Launch Alliance.)

Space is a big place, but our upper atmosphere isn’t. Rapidly increasing numbers of satellites orbit there, in addition to innumerable bits of space debris, and rockets fly through it on missions to the moon, Mars, asteroids, and deep space. President Trump’s newly revived National Space Council will have to manage this busy region and beyond.

The council members—which include heads of dozens of agencies, including the state, defense, commerce, transportation, and homeland security departments—have their work cut out for them as they develop recommendations for national space policy. Regulating and enabling commercial space activities will likely be a top priority, and the group will likely need to address issues including space debris and potentially militarized satellites. Given the risks of weaponizing space if the US, China, and Russia take their disputes beyond earth, and considering the commercial space industry’s uncertain position with respect to national and international law, the council’s first and primary goal should be to pursue space diplomacy…

[Read the entire piece on Wired, published on 23 August.]

 

Why Are FEMA’s Flood Maps So Horribly Flawed?

They fail to take climate change into account, and they’re hard and expensive to maintain. Plus, they can be manipulated by local governments.

Last week, Hurricane Harvey devastated the city of Houston. The scale of the tragedy shocked even the National Weather Service. But perhaps the most shocked set of people is the 40 to 50 percent of Houstonians who live outside Federal Emergency Management Agency’s mapped high-risk flood zones and yet still found their living rooms underwater.

FEMA’s maps represent the government’s best estimates of flood plains. They hold a lot of power: When property isn’t included on FEMA’s “magical map,” its residents aren’t required to buy flood insurance. This tends to impart a false sense of security, says Rob Moore, senior water policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “That’s why these flood maps lead to such risky behavior and have such tragic consequences.”

But as we have seen, both last week and in years previous, FEMA’s predictions are also frequently wrong. Why? …

[To find out, read the entire story on Slate, published on 6 September.]

 

The Pros and Cons of ‘BPA-Free’

In response to consumer pressure, manufacturers are phasing out the use of BPA. But the substitute chemicals may simply be more of the same.

Five years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration officially banned the use of the chemical bisphenol A — commonly referred to as BPA — in plastic baby bottles and sippy cups. A year later, the agency extended the ban to the chemical’s use in baby formula packaging. Manufacturers had used BPA for decades, but modern research in animal models and human cell cultures suggested that the estrogen-like chemical can leach from containers to food and, particularly in infants, potentially affect prostate and brain function.

The FDA did not ban the use of BPA in other products, and its uses have historically been ubiquitous… Manufacturers themselves had sought the initial FDA ban in baby items in the hopes that it would protect the industry and shore up consumer confidence. But the damage to BPA’s reputation was done. California’s decision three years later to add BPA to its inventory of chemicals known to cause reproductive toxicity didn’t help — and to date, more than a dozen states have passed laws banning or restricting BPA’s use in a variety of products.

In response, the manufacturers have been racing to deploy alternatives and push “BPA-free” consumer products onto the market — but if that sounds like a good thing, there’s a problem: The substitute chemicals are similar and, scientists suggest, are likely to have analogous effects on health. In practical terms, this suggests that a “BPA-free” label might be of little consequence to a consumer concerned about the potential impacts of exposure. Some of the alternatives to BPA that industry is using “could be as bad, if not worse in terms of their estrogenic capabilities,” said Michael Antoniou, a molecular geneticist at King’s College London. “There needs to be some caution here…”

[Read the entire story in Undark, published on 6 September.]

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