Pollution & Health
14 Sep 2016:
Islamic Leaders Issue Fatwa on
Indonesia’s Slash-and-Burn Agriculture
Indonesia has been plagued by intense smog and smoke in recent years from a growing number of wildfires set to clear land for the production of pulp, paper,
Indonesian fires as seen from space in 2015.
and palm oil. In 2015, the fires — large enough to be visible from space — caused tens of billions of dollars in damage
, grounding hundreds of flights, closing schools, and creating respiratory problems for an estimated 500,000 Indonesians. This week, Indonesia’s highest Islamic council issued a fatwa, a legal religious ruling or decree, discouraging companies and individuals from using slash-and-burn agriculture. The council said any burning that “causes environmental damage… is illegitimate," Reuters reported
. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim community — 205 million people — making up 87.2 percent of its population.
09 Sep 2016:
Popular Insecticide Reduces
Queen Bees’ Ability To Lay Eggs, Study Finds
A new study has found neonicotinoids, the world’s most commonly used insecticide, cause queen honeybees to lay as much as two-thirds fewer eggs,
A queen bee surrounded by members of her colony.
jeopardizing the health and stability of entire bee colonies. The research, conducted by scientists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Minnesota, was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports
. "The queens are… the only reproductive individual laying eggs in the colony," said lead author Judy Wu-Smart
. "If her ability to lay eggs is reduced, that is a subtle effect that isn't (immediately) noticeable, but translates to really dramatic consequences for the colony." The scientists also found colonies exposed to imidacloprid, a type of neonicotinoids, collected and stored less pollen than insecticide-free colonies, and removed just 74 percent of mite-infested or diseased pupae that can infect the entire hive, compared to 95 percent removal by unexposed bees.
26 Aug 2016:
Ragweed Allergies Could Double
In Europe as Global Temperatures Rise
The number of people suffering from ragweed allergies in Europe could more than double by mid-century due to climate change, according to a new study published in the journal
Environmental Health Prospectives
Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)
. Warming global temperatures, the research found, will help increase the distribution of ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia
) by making more areas of the continent suitable for its growth. Higher temperatures will also make growing seasons longer and increase pollen concentration in the air. Ragweed allergies, popularly known as hay fever, could impact 77 million people in Europe by 2041 to 2060, up from 33 million today, said the new study, led by scientists at the University of East Anglia. Allergies cost Europe $62 billion a year in lost productivity and are responsible for four million sick days worldwide, according to the news site Quartz
11 Aug 2016:
Shipping Noise Causes Whales
To Dive More Slowly and Forage Less
Ocean noise caused by shipping can cause humpback whales to dive more slowly and forage less frequently, according to new research
in the journal Biology Letters
A humpback whale diving.
A team of U.S. and U.K. researchers tagged 10 humpbacks in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts, with devices that simultaneously tracked the whales’ movements and underwater noise. They found that as ship noise increased
, the whales dove 15 percent more slowly and did one-third fewer side-roll feedings, a foraging technique humpbacks use to catch fish near the seafloor. The findings are the latest addition to a growing list of negative impacts
from ocean noise on marine mammals, including disrupted communication, higher stress levels, and increased vulnerability as acoustic pollution masks predator movement. “Chronic impacts of even small reductions in foraging efficiency could affect individual fitness and translate to population-level effects on humpback whales,” the scientists wrote.
05 Aug 2016:
Melting Ice Sheet Could Expose
Abandoned U.S. Arctic Military Base
The rapidly melting Greenland ice sheet could unearth a secret, Cold War-era military base as early as next century, according to a new study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
. Camp Century was built in 1959 to
Entrance to Camp Century.
explore whether the U.S. could covertly deploy ballistic missiles from within the ice sheet, a mission known as Project Iceworm
. By 1967, the military had abandoned the base with little clean up, expecting it would be naturally entombed as snow and ice continued to accumulate on the Greenland ice cap. But warming global temperatures mean that ice loss in this frigid area of northwestern Greenland could exceed gains from new snowfall within 75 years, the study found. The hidden base could be exposed just a few decades later, along with all of the “physical, chemical, biological, and radiological wastes abandoned at the site,” the authors wrote.
02 Aug 2016:
Anthrax Outbreak in Northern
Russia Linked to Rising Global Temperatures
Soaring Arctic temperatures have released anthrax long frozen in the Russian tundra, sickening scores of nomadic herders, including 50 children, and killing one 12-year-old boy, according to news reports
. More than 2,300 reindeer have also died from the disease, known locally as the “Siberian plague.” Anthrax spores can lie dormant in frozen permafrost, animals, and human remains for hundreds of years, and eventually seep into groundwater during a thaw. The last anthrax outbreak in northern Russian happened 75 years ago, in 1941. Temperatures in the Yamal Peninsula, located 1,200 northeast of Moscow, reached 95 degrees F this past month. “Such anomalous heat is rare for Yamal, and that’s probably a manifestation of climate change,” Alexei Kokorin, head of WWF Russia’s climate and energy program, told The Guardian
01 Aug 2016:
Bacteria in Sea Ice Could Play
Role in Mercury Pollution in Oceans
Scientists have discovered bacteria living in Antarctic sea ice that could play a role in mercury contamination of fish, birds, and other marine species.
Antarctic sea ice.
The bacteria, Nitrospina
, can transform mercury found in sea ice — originating from sources such as coal-fired power plants — into the more toxic methylmercury. The heavy metal pollutant—which impacts brain development and can cause mental and physical ailments—accumulates in higher concentrations in marine life as it moves up through the food chain. The findings were published Monday in the journal Nature Microbiology
by scientists at the University of Melborne, the U.S. Geological Survey, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab. John Moreau, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Melbourne who helped lead the study, said in a statement
that the findings beg further study into the sources and behavior of mercury in the oceans, "particularly in a warming climate and when depleted fish stocks means more seafood companies are looking south."
13 Jul 2016:
Six Years After BP Spill,
Remaining Oil More Toxic Than Ever To Fish
Six years after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig spilled nearly three million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, scientists have found that ultraviolet light
is transforming the remaining oil
into a more toxic substance that hinders the development of heart, eye, and brain function in fish. The research, led by scientists at the University of California, Riverside and the University of Miami, exposed embryos and larvae of mahi-mahi from the Gulf of Mexico to what they called weathered (exposed to years of sunlight) and un-weathered oil (taken from the drilling site) from the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Compared to fish exposed to un-weathered oil, the fish exposed to the weathered oil experienced impaired eye and neurological function, reduced heart rates, and a buildup of excess fluid in the heart.
08 Jul 2016:
Hundreds of Deaths in 2003
Heat Wave Linked to Climate Change
A new study suggests that human-caused climate change could be responsible for a significant portion of the 70,000 deaths that occurred during the record-breaking 2003 European heat wave. The research, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters
, combined climate modeling with health data for hundreds of fatalities that summer. Climate change, the study found, increased the likelihood of heat-related losses by nearly 70 percent in Paris and 20 percent in London. Out of 735 heat-related deaths in Paris, 506 were attributable to global warming, as were 64 out of 315 deaths in London. "Until recently, whenever we talked about climate change we talked about the globally averaged increase in temperature of 1 degree and people just don't really know or frankly care about that," lead study author and Oxford University scientist Daniel Mitchell told InsideClimate News
. "But now… people can really start to understand that these are impacts we're seeing now, not in the future."
05 Jul 2016:
Paris Bans All Pre-1997
Cars During Weekdays to Fight Pollution
Starting this month, Paris is banning all cars built before 1997 from driving within city limits Monday through Friday in an effort to lower air pollution levels.
Commuter traffic in Paris.
Paris has been struggling with smog for years and its pollution levels have briefly topped those in Beijing. Similar to Mexico City and New Delhi
, Paris banned even- and odd-numbered license plates on alternating days to fight smog earlier this year. It has also championed cleaner transit options, such as bike- and electric car-sharing programs. Not everyone is enthused, however: The French consumer group 40 Million Drivers said the ban could impact up to 500,000 vehicle owners in and around Paris, particularly low-income families. "When you have an old car in France, it's because you don't have the money to buy a new one," Pierre Chasseray, the executive director of 40 Million Drivers, told NPR
. "Public transport is a solution, but it's not the solution for everybody."
23 Jun 2016:
Scientists Discover Contagious
Cancer in More Species of Shellfish
Last year, scientists discovered a type of contagious cancer in soft-shell clams in which free-floating cells transmitted the disease from one animal to another.
Now, a team of Columbia University researchers is reporting that contagious cancers in the ocean may be more common than previously thought
and can not only jump from animal to animal, but across species. According to the new study published in Nature, the leukemia-like cancer, known as disseminated neoplasia, has been found in three more species of bivalves: mussels, cockles, and golden carpet shell clams. The cancer cells were genetically distinct from their hosts, indicating they originated elsewhere. Transmissible cancer had previously been found in Tasmanian devils
and dogs, but there’s no indication that humans are at risk. “I would only worry deeply if I was a mollusk,” Stephen P. Goff, a molecular biologist at Columbia University and co-author of the study, told The New York Times
20 Jun 2016:
2015 Deadliest Year for
Environmentalists on Record, Finds Report
Last year was the deadliest year on record for environmentalists, according to a new report from Global Witness
, a nonprofit that tracks environmental and human rights abuses worldwide.
Indigenous people protest a dam in the Amazon.
One hundred and eighty-five people were killed trying to stop development of land, forests, and rivers in 16 countries in 2015 — equal to more than three people per week. The tally represents a 59 percent increase over 2014, and is double the number of journalists killed in the same period, according to the report. Environmentalists were most at risk in Brazil, the Philippines, and Columbia, which had 50, 33, and 26 killings last year, respectively. “This report sheds light on the acute vulnerability of indigenous people, whose weak land rights and geographic isolation make them particularly exposed to land grabbing for natural resource exploitation,” the Global Witness authors wrote. “In 2015, almost 40% of victims were indigenous.”
California Condor Population
Reaches New Heights in 2015
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced what it called a milestone for the California condor: More chicks had hatched and fledged in the wild during 2015 than the number of condors that died,
bringing the total in the wild to 270. It was perhaps the most promising news about the condor in decades. After their numbers dropped to just 22 in the 1980s, the U.S. government began rounding up the birds for a last-ditch captive breeding program, then gradually released newly bred birds to the wild. The program was highly controversial, and the condors’ return to the wild over the past two and a half decades has been fraught with peril. But biologists have noted encouraging signs in recent years: The birds have expanded their range, are more likely to engage in wild behaviors, and have begun foraging for their own food.
06 Jun 2016:
Fish Choose Plastic Over
Zooplankton in Polluted Waters
Fish that grow up in waters full of plastic particles develop a taste for trash, choosing to eat plastic over zooplankton, their natural food source, according to a study published in the journal Science
The research, by ecologists at Uppsala University in Swedish, found larval perch from the Baltic Sea exposed to microplastic pollution (less than 5mm in size) had stunted growth, were less active, ignored the smell of predators, and experienced increased mortality rates. Plastic pollution has become a major problem in the world’s oceans, but scientists are just beginning to understand how these fragments can affect the health of marine species. “If early life-history stages of other species are similarly affected by microplastics, and this translates to increased mortality rates, the effects on aquatic ecosystems could be profound,” said ecologist Oona Lönnstedt
, lead author of the study.
01 Jun 2016:
Climate Change Could Be Making
Food Crops More Toxic, UN Report Says
As extreme weather increases in frequency and intensity, food crops are producing more chemical compounds that can be toxic to humans in large doses, according to a recent report by the United Nations Environment Programme
Crops such as wheat, maize, and soybeans generate these compounds as a natural response to environmental stressors, such as drought, floods or heat waves. But when consumed by humans for extended periods of time, they can cause illnesses like neurological diseases or cancer, according to the study. One example, the Thomson Reuters Foundation reports
, is nitrate. Drought slows down plants’ conversion of nitrates into amino acids and proteins, leading to a build up of the compound. When consumed in large quantities, nitrates stop red blood cells from transporting oxygen in the human body. "We are just beginning to recognize the magnitude of toxin- related issues confronting farmers in developing countries of the tropics and sub-tropics," the UNEP report noted.
For the Endangered American Eel,
A Long, Slippery Road to Recovery
The American eel isn’t just a U.S. native. It’s also indigenous to Greenland, Iceland, eastern Canada, and parts of Central and South America. Despite this expansive range, the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as “endangered.”
It would be in even worse shape without the Delaware River, which flows unimpeded 330 miles through New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. Few, if any, eel refuges are more important, and management on the Delaware provides a global blueprint for eel recovery. The upper watershed is protected as a Wild and Scenic River corridor and as the water supply for New York City, and last June, New York State banned fracking in its part of the basin. Compare the Delaware with the nearby Susquehanna River, where the Conowingo Dam has wiped out 400 miles of eel habitat on the main river. But here and elsewhere eel recovery is underway.
25 May 2016:
Could This Straddling Bus Help
Solve China’s Air Pollution Problem?
With an estimated 20 million new drivers on the road each year, China has long struggled to control its CO2 emissions, air pollution, and traffic problems.
But a Beijing-based transit company is planning to test a new straddling bus this summer
that could provide some relief, according to Chinese news agency Xinhua. The bus, which can carry up to 1,400 passengers, hovers above the road, letting smaller vehicles pass underneath. Because it operates on existing roadways, the system is much cheaper to build than underground subways, while carrying the same number of people. The idea of a straddling bus has been around since 1969
, but has remained a far-fetched concept until recent years. A model of the system, designed by Transit Explore Bus, was unveiled at the International High-Tech Expo in Beijing this month. The company plans to build and test an actual straddling bus in Changzhou this summer.
24 May 2016:
Peru Declares Emergency to
Fight Mercury Pollution from Gold Mines
Peru has declared a 60-day emergency in the Amazon due to widespread mercury pollution from the region’s booming gold mining industry, the country's environment minister announced this week
Several studies have confirmed dangerously high levels of the neurotoxin in waterways, fish, and people living in the Madres de Dios region, near Peru’s southeast border. Members of the Harakmbut indigenous group, for example, have mercury levels in their bodies six times higher than what doctors deem safe
. Mercury is used to separate gold from ore, but it can have serious health impacts
, including damaging brain, kidney, and lung function. In illegal mining operations — which make up the majority of mines in the Peruvian Amazon — workers often handle the substance with bare hands, and dump excess mercury into nearby rivers. During the 60-day emergency period, the government will supply uncontaminated fish to local communities and set up mobile health clinics.
19 May 2016:
Brewing Company Creates
Edible Six-Pack Rings to Save Wildlife
Plastic six-pack rings have long been a nuisance to wildlife and ecosystems, fouling oceans and shorelines, and entangling and choking wildlife.
Now, a brewery in Florida has developed an edible version from the byproducts of making beer
, including wheat and barely. If not eaten by marine creatures, the six-pack ring biodegrades. Saltwater Brewery
3-D printed 500 of the holders in April and plans to scale up production to package all of its 400,000 cans of beer per month in the edible rings. The material is just as strong as traditional plastics, the brewery says, but is more expensive. The price would drop, however, as more companies use the edible rings, the brewery said. “We want to influence the big guys,” Chris Goves, president of Saltwater Brewery, said in a video about the new project. “And hopefully inspire them to get on board.”
16 May 2016:
Fumes from Farms Are
Top Source of Fine-Particle Pollution
Farms are the number one source of fine-particulate air pollution in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and China, according to new research published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
Gases from fertilizers and livestock waste cling to emissions from cars, power plants, and factories to create solid particles less than 1/30th the width of human hair. Particles this size have been shown to penetrate deep into lungs, and cause an estimated 3.3 million deaths each year from illnesses like heart and pulmonary disease. Global climate action, however, could reduce this type of air pollution in the coming decades, says the new study, done by three Columbia University scientists. Cutbacks in energy consumption would mean that fumes from farms would have fewer emissions to which they could bond. This reduction in particulates would happen even if fertilizer use increases, the research says.
21 Apr 2016:
A Town Made Almost Entirely Out
Of Plastic Bottles is Being Built in Panama
Construction has begun on the world’s first town made almost entirely out of recycled plastic bottles. Located on Isla Colón in Panama, the village will consist of 120 houses and a lodge on 83 acres of tropical jungle.
The first two-bedroom home was built late last year, and is made from 10,000 plastic bottles pulled from Panama trashcans, roadsides, and beaches. The walls of the homes consist of steel cages filled with bottles and then encased in a concrete mix. They are flexible enough to withstand an earthquake, and insulating enough to keep the home up to 17 degrees F cooler than the jungle outside. Because there are so many recycled bottles on the island already, homes can be built quickly and cheaply, said Robert Bezeau, founder of the Plastic Bottle Village. “We are changing the world, without changing the Earth, one home at a time,” he says on the project’s website
20 Apr 2016:
Entries Invited for Third
Annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest
The third annual Yale Environment 360
Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the year's best environmental videos. Submissions must focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and be a maximum of 15 minutes in length. Videos that are funded by an organization or company and are primarily about that organization or company are not eligible. The first-place winner will receive $2,000, and two runners-up will each receive $500. The winning entries will be posted on Yale Environment 360
. The contest judges will be Yale Environment 360
editor Roger Cohn, New Yorker
writer and e360
contributor Elizabeth Kolbert, and documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon. Deadline for entries is June 10, 2016. Read More.
19 Apr 2016:
Thirty Years After Chernobyl,
Wildlife Thrives in the Contaminated Zone
Thirty years after the meltdown of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, humans remain relatively scarce near the accident site.
Jim Beasley/Sarah Webster
A gray wolf is caught on camera near Chernobyl.
Wildlife, however, is thriving, according to a recent study
by scientists at the University of Georgia. The researchers set up cameras at 94 sites in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone—a 1,000-square-mile area where radiation levels remain high—and applied a fatty acid scent to attract animals. In total, they saw 14 mammal species in the footage, most frequently gray wolves, boars, red fox, and raccoon dogs. Since carnivores tend to accumulate radiation faster that animals further down the food chain, finding so many of them was good news. "We didn't find any evidence to support the idea that populations are suppressed in highly contaminated areas,” said
James Beasley, an ecologist at the University of Georgia who helped lead the study.
15 Apr 2016:
As Smog Continues to Worsen,
New Delhi Bans a Million Cars From the Road
For the second time this year, a million New Delhi cars will be forced to stay off the road each day for the next two weeks in an effort to reduce the city’s hazardous air pollution levels.
Smog in New Delhi, India
The Indian capital was ranked the world’s most polluted urban center in 2014, with smog concentrations frequently reaching hazardous levels for children, the elderly, and people with heart or respiratory issues. The Delhi decision follows a similar recent driving ban in Mexico City, where heavy smog and high ozone levels have also raised health concerns. But some scientists argue that such bans are insufficient to combat escalating pollution problems in developing world megacities. “It is exactly like taking out 10 buckets of water from the ocean, the magnitude of the pollution problem is such,” Gufran Beig, the chief scientist at India’s state-run System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research, told The Guardian
07 Apr 2016:
How Ancient Algae Could
Help Cure Brain and Breast Cancer
One of the oldest life forms on earth may hold the key to battling hard-to-treat cancers, according to new research
by scientists at Oregon State University. The compound, coibamide A, is found in blue-green algae, organisms that have existed for at least two billion years. It was found during a diving trip in Panama’s Coiba National Park eight years ago and run through the National Cancer Institute’s database of potential anti-cancer compounds. Coibamide A was tested on mice and found to be more effective at killing brain and triple negative breast cancer cells—two of the most aggressive and hard-to-treat types of the disease—than anything ever tested before. "The chemical diversity found in nature has always been a significant source of inspiration for drug design and development, but… marine environments remain relatively unexplored," said Jane Ishmael, a cellular biologist at Oregon State University and lead author of the new study.
06 Apr 2016:
Half of World Heritage Sites Are
Threatened By Industrial Development
Since 1972, the United Nations has worked to protect 229 locations in 96 countries known for their “exceptional natural beauty” and “cultural significance.” These spots, known as World Heritage Sites,
The Great Barrier Reef
range from Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, China’s panda sanctuaries, and the Grand Canyon in the United States. A new survey by the World Wildlife Fund, however, has found half of these sites are under threat
from oil and gas development, mining, illegal logging, overfishing, or other industrial activities. Eleven million people live in or near these sites, the report says, and depend on them for their housing, food, water, jobs, or ecosystem services like flood protection and CO2 sequestration. “We are not going to develop a just and prosperous future, nor defeat poverty and improve health, in a weakened or destroyed natural environment,” the authors wrote.
Interview: How Ocean Noise
Wreaks Havoc on Marine Life
Bowing to public pressure, the Obama administration recently reversed an earlier decision to allow oil drilling off the U.S. East Coast. But the five-year moratorium on drilling does not prohibit exploratory seismic air gun surveys
used to locate oil and gas reserves under the seabed, and those surveys are expected to be authorized this spring. Cornell University marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark says the testing, which can go on for weeks at a time, will only add to the rising din in the oceans. “Imagine that every 10 seconds there is an explosion that is rattling grandma’s china out of the cupboard,” he says, “and it is falling on the floor.” In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Clark explains how noise, most of it from ship traffic, severely disrupts marine life, especially among whales. But the good news, he says, is that technologies are being developed to drastically reduce the noise from ships and geological surveying.
Read the interview.
30 Mar 2016:
Air Pollution Linked To
Thousands of U.S. Premature Births
Air pollution may be causing thousands of premature births in the U.S. every year, particularly in urban areas like the Ohio River Valley, Southern California, New York City, and Chicago, according to a new study
in the journal Environment Health Perspectives
. Scientists at New York University compared levels of fine particulate matter, a type of pollution less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, to numbers of premature births, meaning a baby born more than three weeks early. They found that over three percent of all preterm births in the U.S. in 2010 can be attributed to air pollution, and that it cost the country more than $4 billion in medical expenses and lost economic productivity. The exact mechanism behind this relationship is not known, but researchers theorize that air pollution inflames the placenta
during pregnancy, spurring early labor. Preterm birth is associated with a slew of medical issues, from cognitive impairment to breathing and feeding problems.
29 Mar 2016:
As U.S. Oil Production Increases,
More Americans At Risk of Man-Made Quakes
As U.S.-based production of oil and gas has boomed over the last decade, millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater has been pumped and stored deep underground.
The risk of experiencing an earthquake in 2016.
It turns out, however, that this disposal method—popular for fracking waste—is causing a spike in the number of earthquakes across the country, according to a new set of maps from the U.S. Geological Survey
. Seven million Americans are now at risk from man-made quakes, particularly in Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and Arkansas. "My first thought was actually, ‘Holy crap, Oklahoma is redder than California,’" USGS geologist Susan Hough told The Washington Post
about seeing the maps for the first time. Unlike California, however, most of these states don’t have earthquake-ready structures, experts said, so communities are having to update building codes and purchase new insurance.
16 Mar 2016:
Storks Stop Migrating South
In Favor of Food Waste From Landfills
White storks are no longer migrating to Africa every winter, choosing instead to stay near landfills and other garage heaps in southern Europe that provide scavenged food year round, according to new research published Wednesday in the journal Movement Ecology
University of East Anglia
Storks feeding in a landfill.
Sticking close to uncovered trash piles in Europe means the birds no longer have to expend energy flying all the way south to Africa, and can arrive at the best northern nesting sites and breed earlier in the year. As a result, storks have been having bigger broods and higher fledging survival rates. “Portugal’s stork population has grown 10-fold over the last 20 years,” Aldina Franco, a conservation ecologist at the University of East Anglia in Britain who led the study, said
in a statement. “The country is now home to around 14,000 wintering birds, and numbers continue to grow.” Franco and her colleagues’ findings build on the growing scientific understanding
of how our waste is altering the world’s wildlife.