Pollution & Health
14 Jan 2016:
Europe’s Remaining Orcas
Threatened by Banned Toxins, Study Finds
Orcas and other dolphins living in European waters are facing a severe threat from lingering toxic chemicals that have been banned for decades,
Two orcas ply the waters
according to a study led by the Zoological Society of London and published in the journal Scientific Reports
. The research, which was based on long-term studies of more than 1,000 biopsied whales, dolphins, and porpoises in European waters, found that the blubber of these cetaceans contain some of the highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the world. Without much stronger restrictions, "PCBs will continue to drive population declines or suppress population recovery in Europe for many decades to come," the study’s authors wrote. PCBs are a group of man-made chemicals previously used in the manufacture of electrical equipment, flame-retardants, and paints.
17 Dec 2015:
Severe Toxic Algal Blooms
Likely To Double in Lake Erie with Warming
The number of severe harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie will likely double over the next century, according to
Sampling lake water during a toxic algal bloom
Ohio State University. As soon as 2050, toxic algal blooms like the one that cut off Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014 will no longer be the exception, but rather the norm, the researchers say. Although several states and Canadian provinces have agreed to significantly cut nutrient runoff into the Great Lakes, the study suggests that nutrient reductions alone might not be enough to stop the toxic blooms. That's because factors associated with climate change — less winter snow, heavier spring rains, and hotter summers — supercharge the blooms, the researchers explain. "Those are perfect growing conditions for algae," said Noel Aloysius, a member of the research team. "We can reduce phosphorus by 40 percent, but the algae won't suffer as much as you might hope."
15 Dec 2015:
China Anti-Pollution Efforts
Lead to Steep Drop in Sulfur Dioxide Levels
Emissions of sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas that threatens human health and causes acid rain, have dropped sharply in the last decade
China's sulfur pollution has decreased in recent years.
in China, thanks to aggressive air pollution control initiatives by the Chinese government. As these NASA images show, levels of sulfur dioxide in China fell significantly from 2005 to 2014, while emissions of the gas increased in India during the same period. From 2012 to 2014, Chinese SO2 emissions fell especially sharply, by 50 percent. The steady drop in emissions of the noxious gas, released during the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, can be attributed to pollution control measures enacted before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the widespread installation of flue gas desulfurication devices on power plants, the switch to coal with a lower sulfur content, and the closing of coal-fired power plants in favor of less-polluting energy sources such as natural gas, wind, and solar power. India’s sulfur dioxide emissions have risen because of the rapid expansion of coal-fired power plants.
11 Dec 2015:
NASA Detects Carbon Monoxide
Plume as Indonesian Forest Fires Burn
This fall tens of thousands of fires in Indonesia released clouds of particulate matter and toxic gases over the region
Carbon monoxide plumes detected over Indonesia
process that repeats itself year after year as property owners clear their land of debris for farming. This year, however, saw significantly more fires than usual, and many of those fires escaped their handlers and burned uncontrollably for weeks or months. The fires produced a massive plume of carbon monoxide (CO) — a toxic gas that affects both human health and the climate — that could be detected by NASA satellites
. “The 2015 Indonesian fires produced some of the highest concentrations of carbon monoxide that we have ever seen with MOPITT,” the satellite technology that detected the gas, said Helen Worden, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Typically, CO concentrations in that region are roughly 100 parts per billion. Some parts of Borneo, however, saw CO levels of nearly 1,300 parts per billion in September and October.
23 Nov 2015:
In Major Shift, Alberta
Adopts New Plans to Fight Climate Change
In a sharp reversal from the previous government, Alberta’s recently elected premier has announced a host of new climate measures
, including a tax on carbon, the phase-out of coal emissions by 2030, a transition to
renewable energy sources, and CO2 emissions limits on the province’s massive tar sands industry. Premier Rachel Notley said Sunday that the province will adopt an economy-wide carbon tax of 20 Canadian dollars in 2017, increasing to 30 dollars in 2018. She vowed that two-thirds of the electricity now produced by coal-fired power plants will be replaced with renewable energy. And she said Alberta will impose a carbon emissions limit on the oil sands industry of 100 megatons; the industry currently generates 70 megatons of carbon annually. “This is the day we step up, at long last, to one of the world’s biggest problems: the pollution that is causing climate change," Notley said.
02 Nov 2015:
Urban Fruit Less Polluted and
Often More Nutritious Than Retail Versions
Fruits grown in urban areas, often in abandoned orchards from previous centuries, are proving not only largely free of pollutants,
Measuring nutrients and pollutants in urban fruits.
but more nutritious than their commercial counterparts, according to research from Wellesley College
. Joining forces with the League of Urban Canners, a citizens' group based in Boston, the researchers analyzed nearly 200 samples of apples, peaches, cherries, and other urban fruits and herbs, along with commercial varieties of the same foods. Their findings suggest that eating urban fruit is not a significant source of lead exposure, as compared to the EPA's regulated benchmark for lead in drinking water. The concentrations of the nutrients calcium and iron found were higher in urban fruits for every fruit type tested, while manganese, zinc, magnesium, and potassium concentrations were higher in certain urban fruit types. That is most likely because soils in commercial orchards and fields can become nutrient-depleted, researchers say.
26 Oct 2015:
Major Clue Emerges in Mystery
Of Right Whale Deaths, Researchers Say
Endangered right whales
, especially young calves of the southern population, have been having a hard time
in recent years, and
Southern right whale and calf near Peninsula Valdes
scientists haven't been able to determine why. For example, the average number of right whale deaths per year at Peninsula Valdes, a breeding ground off central Argentina's Atlantic coast, jumped more than 10-fold from 2005 to 2014 — from fewer than six per year to 65 per year, researchers say. Roughly 90 percent of the deaths were calves fewer than three months old. Now researchers have closed in on a suspect: blooms of a type of algae known as Pseudonitschia
, which produce harmful neurotoxins, the researchers write in the journal Marine Mammal Science
. Scientists from the United States and Argentina found that the number of whale deaths at the peninsula closely tracked the concentrations of the toxic algae, offering strong circumstantial evidence that the algal blooms are likely behind the whale deaths.
22 Oct 2015:
The Hard-Working Beaver
Is A Fighter Against Nitrogen Pollution
As beaver populations rebound across North America, the ponds they create are proving to be an important factor in removing rapidly
growing levels of nitrogen
A beaver dam in Alaska.
from waterways and estuaries, according to a new study. By creating ponds that slow down the movement of water, the beavers enable nitrogen — which comes from agricultural runoff, septic systems, and other human sources — to seep into soil, where much of it is broken down by bacteria. Reporting in the Journal of Environmental Quality
, researchers at the University of Rhode Island said that beaver ponds can remove up to 45 percent of nitrogen in the water. One scientist said that when they began to consider the widespread presence of beaver ponds, “we realized that the ponds can make a notable difference in the amount of nitrate that flows from our streams to our estuaries.”
19 Oct 2015:
Oslo, Norway, to Ban
Cars in Its City Center By 2019
Oslo, Norway, will ban cars
from its city center by 2019, becoming the first European capital to adopt a
Bikes line the streets of central Oslo, Norway.
permanent prohibition on cars in its downtown area. The newly elected city council announced that the city would also build at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) of new bike lanes by 2019 and provide a “massive boost” of investment in public transportation. Business owners in central Oslo fear that the car ban will reduce revenues, but leaders of the new council said the ban could even increase visitors to downtown and that the city would take steps to reduce negative impacts, including allowing vehicles to transport goods to stores and conducting trial runs of the ban to work out problems. Oslo, with 600,000 inhabitants and almost 350,000 cars, would be the first major European city with a permanent central car ban.
14 Oct 2015:
Toyota Vows to Eliminate
Nearly All of Its Gasoline Cars by 2050
The global automobile giant, Toyota, has announced plans to steadily phase out production of gasoline-powered cars
and to slash emissions from its fleet by 90 percent by 2050. Speaking in Tokyo, Toyota executives vowed to work with government officials and other companies to replace internal combustion cars with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hybrids. “You may think 35 years is a long time, but for an automaker to envision all combustion engines as gone is pretty extraordinary,” said a senior Toyota executive. The company said that by 2020 annual sales of its hybrid vehicles will reach 1.5 million and sales of fuel cell vehicles will hit 30,000 — 10 times the projected figure for 2017. Meanwhile, Volkswagen, shaken by scandal over falsifying emissions data on its diesel cars, announced it will increasingly shift production
to hybrid and electric vehicles.
Interview: Rallying Hip Hop For
A More Inclusive Climate Fight
For the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., hip hop may be the key to bringing together the movements for social and environmental justice.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr.
Yearwood is head of the Hip Hop Caucus
, an advocacy organization seeking to unite hip hop artists and celebrities with climate activists
, with the goal of fighting for climate justice. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Yearwood describes how the environmental, climate, and social justice movements are linked — poverty and pollution, he says, “are the same thing.” He extols Pope Francis’ emphasis on the vulnerability of the poor to pollution and climate change and insists that the climate movement must become far more inclusive. “The movement — to win — has to be everybody: black, white, brown, yellow, male, female, straight, gay, theist, atheist,” says Yearwood. “We have to build a more diverse and inclusive movement. If we don’t do that, it’s game over. We lose.”
Read the interview.
07 Oct 2015:
Africa Can Increase Renewable
Energy Use Four-Fold by 2030, Study Finds
The African continent could generate nearly a quarter of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2030, according to a report
Solar PV minigrids serving 30 villages in Mali
by the International Renewable Energy Agency
(IRENA). The report identified potential renewable energy sources — including solar, biomass, hydropower, and wind resources — equivalent to more than 375 million tons of coal. While half of energy use in Africa today involves traditional biomass consumption, the report estimated that a shift to renewable-energy cooking solutions would reduce traditional cook stove usage and the resulting health complications from poor indoor air quality, leading to savings of $20 to 30 billion annually by 2030. In the African power sector, the share of renewable sources could increase to 50 percent by 2030, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by more than 340 million tons, the IRENA report says.
06 Oct 2015:
Styrofoam May Be Biodegradable
After All, Thanks to Mealworms, Study Says
Mealworms can survive on a diet of polystyrene plastics — commonly used to make Styrofoam — according to research published in
Mealworms devouring Styrofoam
the journal Environmental Science and Technology
. The findings point toward a possible solution for dealing with one of the most-polluting forms of plastic. In the study, 100 mealworms consumed between 34 and 39 milligrams of Styrofoam per day. These worms were as healthy as those fed a normal diet, the researchers report, and excreted biodegraded Styrofoam fragments that were usable as agricultural soil. While studies have found that other organisms, including waxworms and Indian mealmoth larvae, are able to digest plastics such as polyethylene, this is the first organism able to digest Styrofoam, which is generally considered non-biodegradable. The discovery could aid in better understanding of the conditions and enzymes that contribute to plastic degradation.
02 Oct 2015:
Brown Carbon Plays Larger Role
In Climate Than Assumed, Study Says
Climate models are underestimating the effects of so-called brown carbon from sources such as forest fires because the models
do not account for regional factors — such as areas where wood-burning stoves are common — when estimating brown carbon's climate-warming impacts. Black carbon, primarily from urban combustion sources like vehicles and factories, absorbs the most sunlight, the researchers explain, and it's well-accounted for in climate models. However, most models don't properly account for brown carbon, the researchers say. Brown carbon "can be a significant absorber of sunlight, making it as bad for climate warming as black carbon," said co-author Manvendra Dubey of Los Alamos National Laboratory. The study, published this week in Nature Communications
, stresses the differing effects of black and brown carbon on the climate: Solid wood combustion, a source of brown carbon soot, is pervasive during United Kingdom winters, but very uncommon in other study locations, such as Los Angeles, which generally sees more black carbon soot from vehicles.
29 Sep 2015:
Electric Buses Could Lead to
Significant Savings Even for Smaller Cities
Electric buses could save a city with half a million residents — one similar in size to Sacramento, California — roughly $12 million each
Electric bus, Bonn, Germany
year if the city's buses were to run on electricity rather than diesel fuel, according to a study
by the Volvo Group and the audit and advisory firm KPMG. Factors such as noise, travel time, emissions, energy use, natural resource use, and roughly $2.9 million in avoided health care costs contributed to the annual savings, the analysis says. Gothenburg, Sweden's second-largest city, recently began operating a new electric bus line built by Volvo and powered by wind and hydro electricity, says Niklas Gustafsson, Volvo's head of sustainability. The buses' environmentally friendly design, combined with the fact that they are completely silent and emissions-free, has made the line popular in Gothenburg, he says.
16 Sep 2015:
Unchecked Consumerism Causing
Record-Breaking Resource Use, Study Says
Consumption of critical global resources — from meat and coffee to fossil fuels and water — has peaked in recent years, accelerating
Cevahir shopping center in Istanbul, Turkey
climate change, pollution, and resource depletion to unsustainable levels, according to an analysis
by the Worldwatch Institute. The report tracked 24 global consumption trends and found many of them to be record-breaking. Meat production, for instance, has more than quadrupled in the last 50 years, leading to large-scale pressure on water, feeds, and grazing land. Aquaculture production has increased roughly 10 fold since 1984, and today farmed fish account for nearly half of all fish eaten. Global plastic production has also risen continuously over the past 50 years, while recycling rates remain very low. In the United States, for example, only 9 percent of plastic was recycled in 2012. “Untrammeled consumerism lies at the heart of many of these challenges,” said author Michael Renner.
09 Sep 2015:
Natural Gas Pipeline Updates
Can Cut Greenhouse Gas Leaks by 90 Percent
Pipeline replacement programs in cities can cut natural gas leaks by 90 percent, curbing the release of the powerful greenhouse gas
Detecting natural gas leaks in Times Square, NYC.
methane and boosting public safety, according to a study
published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters
. Researchers drove cars equipped with sensitive methane-mapping instruments through thousands of miles of city streets in Manhattan, Boston, Cincinnati, Durham, and Washington, D.C. They discovered that Durham and Cincinnati, where public-private partnerships have replaced outdated pipelines, have 90 percent fewer gas leaks per mile than Manhattan, Boston, and Washington, D.C., where hundreds of miles of corroded natural gas pipes date back to the 1800s. Researchers estimate that, in the U.S. alone, $2 billion worth of natural gas was lost to leaks last year.
01 Sep 2015:
European Project Recruits
Smartphone Users to Collect Pollution Data
A European project that begins today asks smartphone users to collect data on air pollution in major cities across the
Smartphone with the iSpex accessory
continent. In the iSpex-EU project
, volunteers will use a free accessory attached to their smartphones to capture the spectrum of sunlight reaching their phones. Using those readings, scientists can determine levels of fine particles and aerosols in the atmosphere. Once enough data has been collected, the researchers plan to create maps showing where ground-level air pollution poses the highest risks. A recent study from King’s College in London estimated that, in London alone, roughly 9,500 premature deaths each year are linked to high levels of air pollution. After smoking, air pollution is the second-largest public health challenge in the region, researchers say.
14 Aug 2015:
Climate Impact of Wasted Meat
Much Larger Than Other Foods, Study Finds
Researchers analyzing food waste
at university cafeterias found that, although discarded meats accounted for less waste
than fruits and vegetables, they made up the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions associated with food waste. After monitoring four all-you-care-to-eat dining facilities at the University of Missouri, the researchers found
that grain products were thrown away most often, followed by fruits, vegetables, beef, and poultry. Diners wasted roughly twice as much bread and cereal by weight than they did meat and eggs; but because protein production is very carbon-intensive, the carbon footprint of wasted meat and eggs was about three times larger than that of all other wasted foods combined. Overall, 16 percent of the cafeterias' food was wasted, leading to roughly 67 tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Of those emissions, discarded beef alone accounted for slightly more than half, the analysis found.
13 Aug 2015:
Dangerously Hot and Humid
Days Soon Will Become Regular Occurrences
Climate change will make "danger days" — periods when temperature and humidity push the heat index to 105 degrees F or
higher — much more common over the next 15 years, according to a Climate Central
analysis. Looking at 144 U.S. cities, the team determined that only 12 cities have averaged more than one dangerously hot and humid day per year since 1950. By 2030, though, 85 cities — home to nearly one-third of the U.S. population — will likely experience at least 20 danger days each year. That's a dramatic and fast-approaching change from current conditions, the analysts note. Houston, for example, saw only three danger days between 2000 and 2010, but it should expect 102 danger days each year by 2050. The most dramatic increases will be seen in the South, the analysis found. Charleston, West Virginia, is expected to become the most dangerously hot and humid city in the country, experiencing 168 danger days per year by mid-century.
Gallery: The Wild Lands at Stake
If Alaska’s Pebble Mine Proceeds
The proposed Pebble Mine in southwestern Alaska is a project of almost unfathomable scale. If the copper- and gold-mining project proceeds, the mine would cover 28 square miles and require the construction of the world’s largest earthen dam — 700 feet high and several miles long — to hold back a 10-square-mile containment pond filled with up to 2.5 billion tons of sulfide-laden mine waste. All this would be built not only in an active seismic region, but also in one of the most unspoiled and breathtaking places on the planet — the headwaters of Bristol Bay, home to the world’s most productive salmon fishery. In a photo essay, landscape photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum documents the lands and waters at risk from the project, whose fate is currently wending its way through the courts.
Read more | View gallery
23 Jul 2015:
Synthetic Coral Could Remove
Mercury Pollution From Ocean, Study Finds
Chinese researchers have constructed a type of synthetic coral that could help remove toxic heavy metals like mercury from
Microscope image of the coral-like structure
the ocean, according to a report in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science
. Mercury can be especially toxic to corals because they very efficiently adsorb heavy metals, the scientists note. They took advantage of that ability to create a synthetic coral that can bind and remove mercury pollution in water. The coral-like structure is covered with self-curling nanoplates made of aluminum oxide — a chemical compound that can collect heavy metals. The scientists found that the synthetic coral structure could bind mercury 2.5 times more efficiently than aluminum oxide particles alone. According to the World Health Organization, up to 17 in every thousand children living in areas relying on subsistence fishing showed cognitive declines caused by eating mercury-contaminated fish.
22 Jul 2015:
Algae Could Be Environmentally
Friendly Livestock Feed, Research Finds
Algae could replace corn as feed for cattle and other livestock, according to findings
published in the Journal of Animal Science
. Algae — hardy
Algae-based cattle feed
microorganisms that can grow in a variety of environments and laboratory settings — require less fertilizer, water, land, and herbicides than corn, and thus could prove to be an environmentally friendly alternative for livestock feed, researchers say. The materials used in the new study were remnants of algae grown and processed for other applications, such as cosmetics, cooking oil, and biofuels, and would otherwise have been burned as waste. The researchers found that even these pre-processed leftovers were able to provide the same amount of protein as corn, along with slightly more fat. Cattle in the study readily ate the algae at a variety of concentrations and maintained their body weight as well as corn-fed cattle. Researchers say the algal meal could be priced to compete with corn and could be on the market by 2016.
Interview: The High Environmental
Cost of Illicit Marijuana Cultivation
As some U.S. states move to legalize marijuana, one issue has been largely ignored in the policy debates: the serious
environmental effects of the marijuana industry. A new paper co-authored by ecologist Mary Power details many of those impacts by focusing on marijuana cultivation in California, where most of the marijuana consumed in the U.S. is grown. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Power describes how California growers siphon off scarce water resources, poison wildlife, and erode fragile soils. What’s needed, she contends, is legalization of marijuana at the federal level, which would likely drive down marijuana prices. “As long as there is a market that will pay enough to compensate for the brutally hard work they do to grow this stuff in forested mountains,” she says, “then it will keep growing.”
Read the interview.
08 Jul 2015:
Mountaintop Removal Coal
Mining Has Slowed Significantly, Data Show
Coal production from mountaintop removal mines
in the U.S. has declined 62 percent since 2008 — a much steeper drop than the downward
trend in overall coal production, the U.S. Energy Information Administration
reports. Mountaintop removal (MTR) mines have recently been subjected to additional stringent regulations. For example, MTR operations planning to discard excess rock and soil in streams must now secure extra permits from the Environmental Protection Agency. Tennessee is considering banning some types of MTR mining altogether, and a federal stream protection rule expected to be proposed this summer could place additional limits on the practice. Lower demand for U.S. coal in general can be attributed to competitive natural gas prices, renewable energy growth, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations, the EIA says.
Interview: How an Indian Politician
Became an Environmental Hawk
Jairam Ramesh was a self-described “economic hawk” when he became India’s environment minister in 2009, figuring that the
country’s ecological problems could wait as India lifted its people out of poverty. But by the time he left his post in 2011, he had become an environmental hawk after witnessing how India’s rapidly expanding economy and soaring population had caused widespread pollution and destruction of the environment. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Ramesh — an economist, parliament member, and author of a new book — talks about why a “grow-now, pay-later” philosophy is unsuitable for India and discusses his own brand of GDP, which he calls Green Domestic Product. “In the mad rush to economic growth ... we are destroying foundations of ecological security,” he says.
Read the interview.
24 Jun 2015:
Global Fine Particle Pollution
On the Rise Despite Regional Improvements
Air pollution from fine particulate matter has decreased significantly in North America and western Europe over the
Fine particulate air pollution levels, 2010-2012
past two decades, but increases in East and South Asia have more than made up for those improvements, as these maps based on NASA satellite data
show. The U.S. and Europe have many PM 2.5 ground-based monitoring stations, but large swaths of Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America are unmonitored. To fill these gaps, researchers have been developing techniques that use satellite data to better estimate PM 2.5 levels around the globe. They've found that, as a whole, the worsening PM 2.5 pollution in Asia outweighed improvements in North America and Europe, and global PM 2.5 concentrations have increased by 2.1 percent per year since 1998.
15 Jun 2015:
Biodiversity Limits Parasites
In Humans, Wildlife, and Plants, Study Says
High biodiversity generally limits outbreaks of disease among humans and wildlife, University of South Florida researchers write in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. The new research is the first to quantitatively support the controversial "dilution effect hypothesis," which warns that human-driven biodiversity losses can exacerbate parasite outbreaks. Much of the debate surrounding this idea concerns whether it applies generally or only to a few select parasites. After reviewing more than 200 published scientific assessments, the USF team found "overwhelming" evidence that the dilution effect applies broadly to many parasitic species in humans and wildlife. They also found that plant biodiversity reduces the abundance of herbivore pests. The results have implications for public health efforts, the researchers say, and make a case for better management of forests, croplands, and other ecosystems.
Interview: At Sierra Club, New Face
At Helm of Oldest U.S. Green Group
The Sierra Club made history last month when it elected Aaron Mair as its president, the first African-American to lead
the largest and oldest U.S. environmental organization. Mair rose through the group’s volunteer ranks after leading a 10-year battle to close a solid-waste incinerator that was polluting his predominately black neighborhood in Albany, New York. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Mair discusses why it’s time to end a “Victorian-era model of environmentalism” that is “only worthy of the white and the privileged” and talks about why he believes increasing minority participation in green groups is more critical than ever. “If we want to save the planet, if we want to deal with climate change,” says Mair, “we have to engage all of America.”
Read the interview.
02 Jun 2015:
Pollution From Carbon Monoxide
Has Fallen Steadily Since 2000, Data Show
As these NASA satellite maps show
, carbon monoxide levels have decreased appreciably in much of the world since 2000, thanks to
Global carbon monoxide levels as of 2014
improved pollution controls on vehicles and factories and fewer forest fires. Carbon monoxide, which is produced whenever carbon-based fuels are burned, contributes to the formation of ozone, a pollutant that can have adverse health effects. A NASA satellite carrying a sensor called MOPITT — Measurements of Pollution in the Troposphere — measures carbon monoxide levels. Higher concentrations of CO are depicted on the map in orange and red and lower concentrations in yellow. NASA said that the decrease in CO levels from 2000 to 2014 was particularly noticeable in the northern hemisphere thanks to technological and regulatory innovations that have led to lower pollution levels from vehicles and industry. Carbon monoxide levels also have decreased in the southern hemisphere since 2000, due largely to a reduction in deforestation fires.