Pollution & Health
13 Nov 2013:
Plastic Debris in Ocean
Has Spawned a 'Plastisphere' of Organisms
The plastic debris that litters the world's oceans has developed its own unique and diverse microbial ecosystem, researchers report. The microscopic community, which scientists dubbed the "plastisphere,"
includes more than 1,000 species of algae, bacteria, microscopic plants, symbiotic microbes, and possibly even pathogens, the researchers say in Environmental Science & Technology
. Some of the plastisphere microbes, many of which had never before been documented, contain genes that could help break down hydrocarbons, indicating the microbes may play a role in degrading the debris, the research shows. Plastic trash is the most abundant type of debris in the ocean, inflicting harm on fish, birds, and marine mammals that are entangled by it or ingest it. Until now, researchers hadn't looked at microbes living on the debris, which make up a sort of artificial "microbial reef," one of the scientists said
07 Nov 2013:
Grand Canyon 'Zombie'
Uranium Mine on Hold for Financial Reasons
The reopening of a major uranium mine near the Grand Canyon has been put on hold until December 2014 or whenever a federal court rules on the proposed revival of the mine, the Guardian reports
. The owner of Canyon
Grand Canyon's South Rim
Mine, Energy Fuels Resources, cited falling uranium prices, which have reached a near five-year low, and litigation costs as reasons for the decision. In April the Canyon Mine and other so-called "zombie mines"
were given federal approval to reopen based on their rights at the time they closed, despite an Obama administration ban on new hard-rock mines in areas larger than 1 million acres. Grand Canyon National Park officials say reopening the Canyon Mine, located six miles from the popular South Rim entrance, and other uranium mines could affect scarce water sources in the area. Environmental groups and the Havasupai Indian tribe sued the U.S. government in 2012, contending the environmental review of the mine's impacts was outdated.
05 Nov 2013:
Beijing To Limit New Cars
By 40 Percent in Anti-Pollution Drive
In an effort to reduce severe air pollution in the Chinese capital, Beijing will limit by 40 percent the number of new cars sold annually for the next four years, cutting license plate allocations from 240,000 to 150,000 each
Chang'an avenue in Beijing
year. The cap, which should also help ease the capital's worsening traffic congestion, means Beijing will license only 600,000 new cars between 2014 and 2017 — fewer than in 2010 alone, Reuters reports
. By 2017, 40 percent of those licenses, which drivers vie for in auctions and lotteries, will be reserved for hybrid and electric cars. New car sales in China are currently capped in four cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Guiyang — and the government plans to limit sales in eight additional cities, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said.
30 Oct 2013:
Low on Natural Gas, China
Cities Will Face Choking Air Pollution
In a push to curb air pollution, China has been urging its cities to rely more heavily on natural gas and less on coal. But a shortage of natural gas is threatening that goal, as urban populations boom and domestic gas production lags, Reuters reports
. Chinese officials have said that to reduce air pollution the most densely populated parts of Beijing should use only gas heat, which limits the supply of natural gas for smaller cities and forces those cities to rely on coal. Pollution levels in Chinese cities commonly exceed World Health Organization guidelines by 40 to 50 times. The problem is most pronounced in northern China, where air pollution from burning coal has already shortened life expectancy by 5.5 years compared to the southern part of the country. China's natural gas shortage is expected to be 10 percent higher this year than last year, since more users have switched from coal. Authorities are rationing natural gas and prioritizing its use for homes and transportation, but experts don't expect the shortage to subside anytime soon.
Photo Essay: Focusing a Lens on
China's Environmental Challenges
Photographer Sean Gallagher has lived and worked in China for seven years, visiting nearly all of its provinces as he documents the country’s daunting ecological problems and its widely varied landscapes. In a Yale Environment 360 photo essay
, the Beijing-based photojournalist chronicles China’s widespread water and air pollution, the battle against the desertification that has spread across the country's northern regions, and the threats to the nation's biodiversity.
View the photo gallery.
15 Oct 2013:
Nine in 10 Europeans in Cities
Breathe Dangerous, Polluted Air, Study Says
More than 90 percent of Europeans living in cities are exposed to harmful levels of air pollutants, according to a new assessment
from the European Environment Agency. Concentrations of ground-level ozone, or smog,
pose a danger to 97 percent of city populations, and levels of fine particulate matter (particles with a diameter less than 2.5 microns, known as PM2.5) exceed European standards for 91 to 96 percent of city-dwellers — and European standards for both pollutants exceed World Health Organization
recommendations. A new study of European mothers linked higher PM2.5 exposure
to lower birth weight, a standard indicator of fetal development. Eastern European countries have the highest levels of PM2.5, whereas ground-level ozone is worst in northern Italy. Although emissions of most air pollutants have steadily declined over the past 10 years — lead and carbon monoxide levels, for example, now meet international standards in most areas — emissions haven't fallen as much as predicted.
11 Oct 2013:
Agricultural Ammonia Emissions
Threatening U.S. National Parks, Study Finds
Ammonia emissions from agricultural fertilizers are threatening sensitive ecosystems in U.S. national parks, a study led by Harvard researchers
has found. Thirty-eight national parks are seeing nitrogen deposition levels at or above the threshold for ecological damage,
Great Smoky Mountains N.P.
the study says. In natural ecosystems, excess nitrogen can disrupt nutrient cycling in soil
, cause algal overgrowth, and make aquatic environments acidic. While some of that nitrogen comes in the form of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from power plants and vehicle exhaust, existing air quality regulations and new clean energy technologies are helping reduce NOx emissions. Ammonia emissions from agricultural operations, however, are expected to climb as demand for food and biofuels surges. Daniel Jacob, who led the study, said that because ammonia is volatile, only 10 percent of the nitrogen makes it into the food, with much of it escaping through the atmosphere and being deposited across the landscape. According to the report, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
, hardwood trees, such as those shown above, are most sensitive to excess nitrogen in eastern temperate forests, while in western national parks lichens appear to suffer first.
02 Oct 2013:
Excess Radioactivity and Metals
Found in Pennsylvania Fracking Wastewater
Researchers found high levels of radioactivity, metals, and salts in sediments and water downstream from a Pennsylvania facility that treats fracking wastewater. Radioactivity levels downstream of the treatment plant were about 200 times higher than in surrounding areas, and concentrations of some salts and metals were also higher than background levels, the scientists reported in Environmental Science and Technology
. The Duke University team traced the radioactivity's source to the Marcellus Shale formation, which is naturally high in salts and radioactivity. Although the treatment plant removes more than 90 percent of the radioactive metals radium and barium, the effluent still exceeds federal limits for radioactive waste disposal, the researchers said. Plants, fish, and other organisms near the facility are potentially at risk for radium bioaccumulation. Downstream, carcinogenic byproducts can form when water with excess levels of the salt bromide mixes with disinfection chemicals at municipal drinking water plants, the study said. A mile downstream from the treatment facility, bromide levels were 40 times higher than background levels, the researchers reported.
23 Sep 2013:
Cleaner Air from Curbing CO2
Emissions Would Save Lives, Study Finds
Gains in air quality that would come from reducing greenhouse gas emissions could save up to three million lives per year by 2100, according to U.S. researchers
. Their findings, published in Nature Climate Change
, come ahead of an important interim report by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set to be released on Friday. Cutting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, vehicles, and other sources would reduce particulate matter and ozone emissions, which are tied to cardiovascular distress, respiratory illnesses, lung cancer, and strokes. The study estimated that by 2100, 1.4 million to 3 million premature deaths a year could be avoided thanks to cuts of CO2 emissions. The researchers calculated that health care savings alone would outweigh the projected costs of cutting carbon emissions over the next few decades.
20 Sep 2013:
U.S. Places CO2 Limits
On New Coal-Fired Power Plants
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will for the first time begin regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new coal- and natural gas-fired power plants
under the Clean Air Act, EPA Adminstrator Gina McCarthy announced. Speaking in Washington, McCarthy said, “Climate change is real, human activities are fueling that change,
and we must take action to avoid the most devastating consequences.” The EPA regulations, which the coal industry vows to challenge in court, will require new coal plants to emit fewer than 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour, considerably lower than the average 1,800 pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour currently produced by coal-fired power plants. Such limits would require the new plants to deploy carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which has not been used on a wide scale. The difficulty of using CCS technology will be at the heart of lawsuits challenging the EPA move, industry officials say.
17 Sep 2013:
Major Company Backs Out
Of Pebble Mine Project in Alaska
A major mining company has withdrawn its participation in Alaska's Pebble Mine project, dimming the controversial project's prospects of moving forward, the Anchorage Daily News reports
. The British Mining giant, Anglo American, said it was pulling out of the project to focus on lower-risk mining ventures — a tacit acknowledgment that opposition among fishermen,
Bristol Bay watershed
indigenous groups, and environmentalists was making it increasingly unlikely that the Pebble Mine would receive the necessary state and federal approvals. The opposition is focused on concerns that the massive gold and copper mine would threaten Bristol Bay and endanger the world's richest wild salmon fishery
. Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company, continues to back the project, but a company official said the firm would have trouble moving forward without a partner.
11 Sep 2013:
Arsenic in Vietnam Groundwater
Slowly Moving Toward Hanoi, Study Says
As the population and water needs of Hanoi mushroom, the capital city of Vietnam is slowly drawing poisonous arsenic into the aquifer that supplies its drinking water, say researchers from the U.S. and Vietnam
. Water contaminated with arsenic has moved more than a mile
The Red River
closer to the aquifer over the last 40 to 60 years, the researchers report in Nature
, due to the city's increasing water demand; municipal pumping in Hanoi doubled between 2000 and 2010. The good news, says lead researcher Alexander van Geen of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, is the contaminated groundwater "is not moving as fast as we had feared it might.” This will give Hanoi officials time, perhaps decades, to determine how to best deal with the problem. The study also determined why arsenic is leaching into the groundwater: As water containing arsenic mixes with high levels of organic carbon from the Red River and other surrounding aquifers, the chemistry changes and arsenic dissolves in the water.
05 Sep 2013:
Swapping Corn for Rice Benefits
China's Miyun Reservoir, Study Shows
After years of contamination and decreasing output, China's Miyun Reservoir is rebounding
, say researchers from China and the U.S. Rice farming had contaminated and tapped the reservoir, which lies 100 miles north of Beijing and is the main water source for the city's 20 million inhabitants. But four years ago, the Chinese government began paying farmers to grow corn instead, which requires less water and leads to less fertilizer and sediment runoff than rice farming
. Now, water quality tests show that fertilizer runoff declined sharply, the researchers found, and the amount of reservoir water available to Beijing and surrounding areas has increased. Farmers also made more money growing corn instead of rice and were able to spend less time tending their crops, the study concluded
28 Aug 2013:
Illegal Slash-and-Burn Fires
Are Causing Smog Problem in Indonesia
Skies above Indonesia have been blanketed with smog
as wildfires burn throughout its forests. Ignoring
environmental laws, companies are using the practice of slash-and-burn to clear land for palm oil plantations. The illegal fires decimate rainforests and peatlands and fill the air with lethal levels of smoke, as seen in this NASA satellite image taken on August 27. Indonesia's pollution index hit a record-high 401 earlier this month; any reading above 400 is considered life-threatening to the elderly and sick. Palm oil is the world's largest vegetable oil commodity
and demand is rising rapidly, causing massive damage to tropical forests, especially in Southeast Asia.
23 Aug 2013:
Arsenic in Groundwater
May Affect 20 Million People in China
Nearly 20 million people in China are exposed to high levels of arsenic in the water they use for drinking and cooking, a new model based on geological and
hydrological data and well samples shows. The model predicts high arsenic concentrations
(10 micrograms per liter or greater) across more than 580,000 square kilometers, according to Chinese and Swiss researchers, who published their findings in Science
. Researchers had long known that some regions had high arsenic concentrations, but it would have taken several decades to test the millions of wells in China. The new prediction combined the most recent tests with data about the underlying geology, soil characteristics, and topography.
13 Aug 2013:
Too Many Urban Beehives
May Do More Harm Than Good, Experts Say
A surge in urban beekeeping may be doing more harm than good to honeybee populations
, according to UK scientists. As the number of rooftop hives increases in cities worldwide
— including London, where there are
A Berlin beekeeper
now 10 hives per square kilometer — two researchers from the University of Sussex warn that too many hives can be detrimental. Writing in The Biologist
, the magazine of the Society of Biology, they suggest that inexperienced beekeepers can create conditions in which there isn’t enough food for their insects. “If there are too many colonies in an area, then the food supply will be insufficient,” Francis Ratnieks, a professor at the university’s Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, told the BBC. “This will mean that colonies do not thrive, and may also affect other species that also visit flowers.”
09 Aug 2013:
Mapping of Monarch Butterfly
Migration Yields Clues About Decline
A comprehensive mapping of the North American migration patterns of the iconic monarch butterfly
could help preserve a species threatened by loss of habitat and food sources
, a team of international
A monarch butterfly
researchers says. In a study conducted across 17 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, from southern Texas to Alberta, biologists from Canada, the U.S., and Australia tracked the northward migration of the monarchs, documenting five generations in a single breeding season. By analyzing a chemical signature found on the adult butterflies’ wings that reveals their specific birthplace, scientists were able to track the different generations of butterflies as they migrated north to the U.S. Midwest, from which many butterflies then traveled to Alberta. According to Tyler Flockhart, a Ph. D. student at the University of Guelph in Canada and lead author of the study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B
, the decline in milkweed and a surge in genetically modified crops might be affecting monarch survival.
29 Jul 2013:
Wired Honeybees Show
Harmful Impacts of Pesticides on Navigation
Using tiny radar antennae glued to the backs of honeybees, European scientists have found that bees exposed to neonicotinoid pesticides were more likely to become disoriented
and separated from their hives.
Honeybee wired with radar antennae
After attaching the small transponders to 200 bees, including some that were fed pesticide-laced syrup, scientists discovered that the exposed bees had difficulty navigating and were unable to retrace the path back to their hives. “We find the control bees are just fantastic — they use their landscape and their vector memory and they do fine,” Randolf Menzel, an insect neurobiologist at the Free University in Berlin, told the London Telegraph
. “The treated bees, depending on the doses of the substance, are more confused.” The findings appear to support a theory that neonicotinoids make bees more vulnerable to pathogens and could be a factor in so-called “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon that has decimated honeybee populations
in recent years.
24 Jul 2013:
European Investment Bank
Will Not Finance Most Coal Power Stations
The European Investment Bank (EIB), the main lending arm of the European Union, has decided to stop financing most coal-fired power plants
, part of an effort to help the 28-nation bloc meet ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets by 2030. The EIB says that new and refurbished coal-fired power stations will be ineligible for funding unless they emit less than 550 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour, a standard that traditional coal power plants would be unable to meet. Power stations that burn coal would only be able to meet the standards if they also produce heat for municipal or commercial heating systems or burned biomass. The EIB says it plans to further tighten its emissions standards for coal- and natural gas-fired power plants in the future.
09 Jul 2013:
Coal Emissions in China Slash
5.5 Years off Life Expectancy, Study Says
The life expectancy of people living in northern China is 5 ½ years less than in southern China
as a result of the north’s notoriously bad air pollution, largely due to the burning of coal, according to a new study. In an analysis
of air quality recordings from 90 Chinese cities from 1981 to 2000 and mortality data from the 1990s, a team of researchers estimated that high air pollution will cost the roughly 500 million people living north of the Huai River a combined 2.5 billion years of life expectancy compared with people living in the south. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, the researchers say increased mortality, attributable to cardiorespiratory illness
, is the unintended consequence of a Chinese policy that from 1950 to 1980 provided free coal for boilers in cities north of the Huai, but not for those living in the south.
26 Jun 2013:
Exposure to Lead Costs
Developing Nations $1 Trillion Annually
The exposure of children to toxic lead, and the subsequent declines in IQ and earning potential, costs the developing world nearly $1 trillion annually
, according to a new report. Based on the average lead levels in children under the age of 5, researchers from New York University found that Africa suffers the greatest costs from lead exposure, losing an estimated $137.7 billion annually, or about 4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). In Latin America, the costs are about $142.3 billion, the study found, while in Asian nations the costs are about $699.9 billion. By comparison, the annual costs in the U.S. and Europe, where exposure to lead has decreased significantly in recent decades, are about $50 billion and $55 billion, respectively. The report said lead consumption has increased worldwide
since the early 1970s, largely because of rising demand for lead batteries. The study was published in Environmental Health Perspectives
21 Jun 2013:
Illegal Fires in Sumatra
Send Dangerous Pollution to Singapore
Billowing smoke from illegal fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra has engulfed Singapore this week, pushing air pollution to record levels
consecutive days. The smoke, which is captured in a new NASA satellite image
, has created an acrid blanket of smog across the region and historic levels of air pollution. According to government officials, Singapore's air pollution index reached 401 on Friday, a level considered hazardous for breathing. Before this week, the previous high was 226. The smoke has been blowing east toward southern Malaysia and Singapore
from Sumatra, where farmers set illegal fires to clear land for new crops during the mid-year dry season. The fires are yet another sign of the large-scale deforestation taking place on Sumatra.
20 Jun 2013:
Global Reports Underline
Threats to Planet’s Bird Species
New global research underlines the rising threats facing the world’s bird species, with three reports providing evidence that climate change, overfishing, and unsustainable agriculture are taking a heavy toll on
Puffins along the Maine coast.
avian populations worldwide. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) reports that numbers of some migratory bird populations in Maine — including Arctic terns and puffins — have plummeted in recent years
because their food supplies are disappearing as a result of commercial fishing and the shifting of fish to cooler waters, which is making it more difficult for some birds to feed their young. In a separate study, scientists predict that rising sea levels will devastate habitat for some migratory shore birds
in the coming decades. Higher sea levels, the study predicts, will flood 23 percent to 40 percent of the intertidal habitats for several shorebird species, triggering population declines of as much as 70 percent. Overall, one in eight bird species globally is at risk of extinction
, according to a new report by BirdLife International
12 Jun 2013:
Bird-Mimicking Mobile Apps
Harmful to Species, UK Groups Say
Wildlife officials in the UK are urging people not to use mobile phone apps that mimic bird songs in nature reserves, warning that the devices can harm some sensitive species
, particularly during breeding season.
Icon for Chirp! app
The increasingly popular apps, which use recordings of bird calls to lure the birds closer for photographs or better viewing, can distract birds from critical tasks, such as feeding their young, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. The Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT), a conservation group that oversees 42 reserves, is discouraging the use of the mobile apps at its reserves
, calling it an intentional disturbance of sensitive species such as the Nightjar, a nocturnal bird that has experienced a recent recovery in the area. “I’m sure visitors would be devastated if they realized the possible disturbance they were causing to wildlife,” said Chris Thain, a manager at DWT’s Brownsea Island reserve.
30 May 2013:
Nuclear Power Has Prevented
1.84 Million Premature Deaths, Study Says
The use of nuclear power from 1971 to 2009 prevented more than 1.8 million premature deaths
related to air pollution and 64 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, a new study says. Using historical production data and estimates of mortality per unit of electricity generated, scientists from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University calculated that replacing nuclear energy sources with fossil fuel-burning sources during that period would have caused about 1.84 million premature deaths. By midcentury, they project, nuclear power could prevent an additional 420,000 to 7 million deaths, depending on which fossil fuels it replaces, and 80 to 240 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions. “By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than the expansion of nuclear power,” said Pushker A. Kharecha, who, along with NASA’s James Hansen, co-authored the study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology
. The study calculated that nuclear power plant accidents caused about 4,900 deaths during the same period.
28 May 2013:
Electricity Availability Growth
Must Double to Achieve Global Access
The rate of expansion of access to electricity will have to double over the next 17 years
if the world's population is to achieve 100 percent access to modern energy, a new report says. While about 1.7 billion people became connected to electricity sources worldwide between 1990 and 2010, that increase barely outpaced population growth during that period, according to Sustainable Energy for All, a group lead by the World Bank and the United Nations. More than 1.2 billion people still do not have access to electricity, and 2.8 billion still rely on burning wood or other biomass for household fuel, a source of pollution that causes about 4 million premature deaths annually. Achieving universal access to modern energy will require investments of $45 billion annually, which is five times the current levels. If combined with an expansion of renewable energy sources and improved efficiencies, however, achieving this growth in energy access would increase CO2 emissions by less than 1 percent, the report says.
23 May 2013:
China Poised to Launch
Much-Anticipated Carbon-Trading Project
China has revealed details of a carbon cap-and-trade pilot project that will be launched next month, a much-anticipated market attempt to rein in carbon dioxide emissions by the world’s biggest emitter. The first phase of the program, which will be implemented in the southern city of Shenzhen, will cover 638 companies
that produce 38 percent of the city’s carbon emissions, according to the city branch of the government’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). The system will impose caps on the companies’ CO2 emissions and establish a market for the buying and selling of emissions permits. Eventually, the program will be expanded to include the transportation, manufacturing, and construction sectors, the Guardian
reports. By 2014, the experimental scheme will be expanded into six other designated cities and provinces, including Beijing and Shanghai. Earlier this week, the Chinese newspaper 21st Century Business Herald
reported that the NDRC is contemplating a nationwide system to control CO2 emissions by 2020.
21 May 2013:
Large Majority of Americans
Believe Global Warming Should be a Priority
Roughly 70 percent of Americans say global warming should be a priority for President Obama and Congress and 61 percent support requiring fossil fuel companies to pay a carbon tax that would be used to help reduce the national debt, according to a new survey
by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. In a national survey conducted in April, 87 percent of respondents said that the president and Congress should make developing clean sources of energy a priority, 68 percent favored regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and 71 percent supported providing tax rebates for people who buy solar panels and energy-efficient vehicles. Seventy percent said global warming should be at least a “medium” priority, while 28 percent said it should be a low priority. The poll showed that 7 in 10 Americans support funding more research into green energy sources.
16 May 2013:
Scientist’s U.S. Road Trip
Reveals Unexpected Methane Emissions
Methane measurements collected during a scientist’s road trip across the U.S. indicate that local emissions of the potent greenhouse gas are higher than previously known in many regions
. Using a gas chromatograph mounted to the roof of a rented camper, Ira Leifer of the University of California, Santa Barbara, collected air samples from Florida to California, finding the highest methane concentrations in areas with significant refinery activity — such as Houston, Texas — and in a region of central California with oil and gas production. He found that methane concentrations exceeded the levels estimated by the U.S. Department of Energy, particularly in areas near industrial fossil fuel extraction sites. The results point to the importance of targeting these “fugitive” methane emissions in parallel with efforts to reduce CO2 emissions. Leifer's findings were published in the journal Atmospheric Environment
13 May 2013:
Project Looks to Quantify
Power Emissions Through Crowdsourcing
A team of scientists is enlisting public support to help produce a more comprehensive inventory of carbon dioxide emissions from power plants globally, urging citizens to identify power plants in their communities
with a new digital app. While data from some of the
world’s industrialized regions — including the U.S. and Europe — are already widely available, researchers at Arizona State University (ASU) say specific information on carbon emissions from most parts of the world is difficult to obtain. “It turns out that we know far less about fossil fuels than we thought we did,” Kevin Gurney, an emissions modeler at ASU and co-leader of the so-called Ventus Project, told Nature
. “We could use some help.” Using a simple Google Earth application, the technology enables users to upload exact coordinates of local power plants, and, if possible, information on the type of fuels used or the quantity of CO2 emissions. Organizers hope that the crowdsourcing initiative will fill data gaps on the world’s roughly 30,000 power plants.