Pollution & Health
Photo Essay: Documenting the Swift
Change Wrought by Global Warming
For 25 years, photographer Peter Essick has traveled the world for National Geographic
magazine, with many of his recent assignments focusing on the causes and consequences of climate change. In a Yale Environment 360
photo essay, we present a gallery of images he took while on assignment in Antarctica, Greenland, and other far-flung locales affected by climate change. View the photo gallery.
16 Dec 2013:
Volume of E-Waste
Projected to Soar by 2017, Study Says
The volume of electronic waste generated worldwide is expected to climb by 33 percent by 2017
to 65 million tons, according to a study conducted by a partnership of United Nations organizations, industry, governments, and scientists. So many computers, televisions, mobile
phones, and other devices are being tossed away annually that within four years the volume of e-waste would fill a 15,000-mile line of 40-ton trucks, the report
said. The report, released by a group called StEP
( Solving the E-Waste Problem Initiative) said that in 2012, 50 million tons of e-waste was generated worldwide, about 15 pounds for every person on the planet. China generated the most electronic waste last year, with 11.1 million tons, followed by the U.S. with 10 million tons. But in per capita generation, the U.S. dwarfed China and most other countries, with each American producing 65 pounds of e-waste, the study said. “The explosion is happening because there is so much technical innovation,” said Ruediger Kuehr, executive secretary of StEP.
10 Dec 2013:
Chinese State Media
Criticized for Touting Benefits of Smog
For Chinese citizens worried about smog, which has been blanketing major cities and smashing air pollution records recently, China's state media has some advice: Look on the bright side. State broadcaster CCTV and a Communist Party tabloid, Global Times
, yesterday published editorials
attempting to put a positive spin on China's air pollution crisis. The state-run outlets said smog has military benefits because it can interfere with the guidance systems of foreign missiles, as well as personal benefits such as bolstering Chinese citizens' sense of humor, making them more united, more sober, better informed, and more equal because smog "affected the lungs of both rich and poor," The Telegraph
reports. Internet commenters and other media outlets, including several state-run publications, were outraged. "Is the smog supposed to lift if we laugh about it?" asked the official publication Beijing Business Today
. The pro-smog pieces have both been deleted from the publications' websites.
06 Dec 2013:
China Doubles Pace
Of Renewable Energy Installation in 2013
Over the past 10 months China has added renewable energy sources to its power grid at double the pace of 2012, according to its National Energy Administration (NEA). The renewable energy push, part of a massive effort to cut air pollution in China's large cities, has added more than 36 gigawatts of clean energy capacity
Shanghai, Dec. 3, 2013
so far this year, Bloomberg News reports
. Hydroelectric power grew by 22.3 gigawatts in the first 10 months of 2013, new nuclear energy installations totaled 2.2 gigawatts, solar 3.6 gigawatts, wind 7.9 gigawatts. China's solar energy capacity could triple from 2012 levels to 10 gigawatts by the end of the year, while wind and nuclear power capacity could increase by 22 and 17 percent, respectively, the NEA said. That should offer some relief from China's choking air pollution. In Shanghai, schoolchildren were ordered indoors today
as air pollution reached extremely hazardous levels, exceeding World Health Organization health guidelines for fine particulate matter by 24 times.
03 Dec 2013:
Microplastic Pollution Harms
Worms at Bottom of Food Chain, Study Finds
As plastic trash accumulates in ocean ecosystems, it may be damaging worms and other sensitive marine life at the bottom of the food chain, scientists report. Two British studies found
that microplastics — tiny remnants, less than 5 mm in diameter, from the breakdown of plastic trash — made seafloor worms eat
Beach sediments churned by a lugworm
less and transferred pollutants from the plastics to the worms. Because they ate less, the worms had less energy to invest in important functions
such as growth, reproduction, and churning sediments, one of their most important roles in the ocean ecosystem. The worms also absorbed harmful chemicals from the debris
, including hydrocarbons, antimicrobials, and flame retardants, researchers said. Lugworms, often called the "earthworms of the sea," are considered an indicator species because they feed on ocean floor sediments. Microplastics have been accumulating in those sediments since the 1960s, and, although each particle is nearly invisible, taken together microplastics are the most abundant form of solid-waste pollution on the planet.
22 Nov 2013:
Majority of Americans
Uninformed About Fracking, Survey Finds
Most Americans are uninformed and lack opinions on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process used to extract oil and gas from rock formations, a new survey says
. Fifty-eight percent of people surveyed specifically reported that they knew nothing at all about fracking, and the same percentage said they didn't know whether they supported fracking or opposed it. Seven percent said they were aware of some of the process's environmental impacts, and 3 percent said they knew of positive economic and energy supply impacts of fracking. Of those who held an opinion on it, 20 percent were opposed to fracking and 22 percent supported it. "Broadly speaking, our results paint a picture of an American populace that is largely unaware and undecided about this issue," the study says. The study
— conducted by researchers at Oregon State, George Mason, and Yale universities — was recently published in the journal Energy Policy
20 Nov 2013:
Low-Income Solar Project
Is Recognized at U.N. Climate Talks
An Australia-based solar start-up company was recognized at the U.N. climate change talks in Warsaw for its work replacing highly polluting kerosene lamps with solar lighting in low-income regions of India. The company, Pollinate Energy, trains members of local communities to install household solar-powered lights in India's slums, where families often rely on kerosene for lighting. So far the project has installed solar-powered lighting systems for 10,000 people in 250 of Bangalore’s slum communities, in turn saving 40,000 liters of kerosene and 100,000 kilograms of carbon emissions, RenewEconomy reports
. The solar lighting systems are cheaper to operate than kerosene lamps and are less polluting and dangerous than kerosene, which can cause house fires and severe burns. The nonprofit project started in Bangalore — home to some of India's worst slums — as a way for children to do schoolwork after sunset. Pollinate Energy trains local installers to distribute and install the lighting systems as micro-entrepreneurs, which they call "pollinators."
19 Nov 2013:
Pollution From Plastic Trash
May Make Tiny Island a Superfund Site
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to study whether plastic pollution on a small island in the Pacific Ocean is severe enough to warrant listing it as a Superfund clean-up site
. Tern Island, a 25-acre strip of land about 500 miles northwest of the Hawaiian island
Oahu, is home to millions of seabirds, sea turtles, and the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. The U.S.-based Center for Biological Diversity asked the EPA to add the entire Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and parts of the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch
to the list of federal Superfund sites due to extreme marine debris pollution, but the agency has only agreed to undertake an environmental study on Tern Island. The island is awash with debris ranging from plastic water bottles and bits of plastic to discarded fishing gear and home appliances. Studies have shown the trash can take a heavy toll on wildlife — seabirds, for example, often ingest bits of plastic after mistaking them for food and eventually die of starvation. The EPA study is the first step of a potentially years-long process to determine if the island qualifies for listing under the 1980 Superfund law.
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.