Pollution & Health
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.
29 May 2015:
Ozone Benefits of Montreal
Protocol Already Widespread, Study Says
The planet's protective ozone layer is in far better shape today thanks to the United Nations' Montreal Protocol, which came
Ozone hole without the Montreal Protocol
into force in 1987 and restricted the use of ozone-depleting substances such as CFCs, according to a new study in Nature Communications
. The researchers used 3D atmospheric chemistry modeling to look at what might have happened to the ozone layer had the treaty not been implemented. The findings suggest that the Antarctic ozone hole would have grown by an additional 40 percent by 2013 and, had ozone-depleting substances continued to increase, the ozone layer would have become significantly thinner over other parts of the globe. A very large ozone hole over the Arctic would have occurred during the exceptionally cold Arctic winter of 2010-2011 — colder temperatures cause more loss — and smaller Arctic ozone holes would have become a regular occurrence.
A Remarkable Recovery for
The Oysters of Chesapeake Bay
In the past century, more than 90 percent of the world’s oyster beds have been lost to pollution, overharvesting, disease, and
Wild oysters harvested from the Chesapeake Bay
coastal development. The renowned oysters of the Chesapeake Bay experienced a similar decline, with production nearly disappearing a decade ago. Now, however, Chesapeake Bay oysters are undergoing a remarkable recovery thanks to a brilliant oyster geneticist, improved state and federal management, the expansion of private hatchery operations, the cleanup of the bay, and some help in the form of average rain years and excellent reproductive oyster classes.
13 May 2015:
Car Travel Is Six Times
More Expensive Than Bicycling, Study Finds
Traveling by car costs society and individuals six times more than traveling by bicycle, according to a study
Bicycles parked in downtown Copenhagen
transportation trends in Copenhagen, one of the planet's most heavily bicycled cities. The analysis considered how much cars cost society and how they compare to bicycles in terms of air pollution, climate change, noise, road wear, public health, and congestion in Copenhagen. If the costs to society and the costs to private individuals are added together, the study found, the economic impact of a car is 0.50 euros per kilometer, whereas the cost of a bicycle is 0.08 euros per kilometer. Looking only at costs and benefits to society, one kilometer by car costs 0.15 euros, whereas society earns
0.16 euros on every kilometer cycled because of improvements in the public's health.
11 May 2015:
Research Charts Increase
In Algal Blooms in the Chesapeake Bay
Algal blooms in the Chesapeake Bay became increasingly frequent from 1991 to 2008, according to new research
An algal bloom in the Chesapeake Bay in 2007
the University of Maryland. Driven by runoff containing excess nitrogen and other nutrients, algal blooms can severely deplete oxygen levels and release significant amounts of toxins in the water, killing fish and altering food webs. Harmful algal blooms have long been plaguing the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries, but water quality data from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources show that the events roughly doubled in the 1991-2008 period. Major blooms of one type of microscopic algae, Kalrodinium veneficum
, increased from fewer than five per year in 2003 to more than 30 per year in 2008. That type of bloom produces a toxin implicated in fish kills in the Chesapeake Bay and with oyster spawning and development problems.
07 May 2015:
Ethanol Refineries May Emit More
Smog-Forming Compounds Than Expected
Refineries that produce ethanol fuel may be releasing much larger amounts of smog-forming compounds than researchers and government agencies had suspected, according to a new study
in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres.
Airborne measurements downwind from an ethanol refinery in Illinois show that, compared to government estimates, ethanol emissions are 30 times higher and emissions of all volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include ethanol, are five times higher. Producing one kilogram of the fuel at the Illinois refinery emits 170 times more ethanol than what comes out of a vehicle burning the same amount, the study says. Along with nitrogen oxides, VOCs can react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone, the main component of smog. Renewable fuel standards mandate that gasoline burned in the U.S. contains 10 percent ethanol — an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and petroleum imports while boosting the renewable fuels sector.
05 May 2015:
Pollen May Play Surprising
Role in Climate and Cloud Formation
Grains of pollen may be seeding clouds and affecting the planet's climate in unexpected ways, University of Michigan researchers
Grains of pollen can break into even smaller particles.
write in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
. Scientists had assumed that pollen particles were too large to remain in the atmosphere long enough to interact with the sun's radiation or trigger cloud formation. The study found, however, that pollen grains are capable of disintegrating into much smaller particles and that exposure to humidity can accelerate pollen's breakdown. Using a cloud-making laboratory chamber, the researchers showed that six common types of pollen — ragweed and oak, pecan, birch, cedar, and pine trees — could break into particles small enough to draw moisture and form clouds. "What happens in clouds is one of the big uncertainties in climate models right now," author Allison Steiner said.
20 Apr 2015:
Record Amount of E-Waste
Generated Globally in 2014, Report Finds
A record amount of electronic waste was discarded in 2014, with a total of 41.8 million tons of personal electronics and household
2014 saw a record amount of e-waste.
appliances hitting landfills worldwide, a new report
from the United Nations University found. The highest per-capita totals of so-called "e-waste" came from Scandinavian and European countries — Norway topped the list, followed by Switzerland, Iceland, and Denmark — and China and the U.S. were responsible for the largest volumes overall. Nearly 60 percent of e-waste by weight came from electronic components and wiring in large and small kitchen, bathroom, and laundry appliances, and 7 percent was discarded mobile phones, calculators, personal computers, and printers, the report said. It also found that less than one-sixth of all discarded electronics were properly recycled, and an estimated $52 billion in gold, copper, silver, and recoverable materials went to waste.
15 Apr 2015:
Entries Invited for e360
Contest For Best Environmental Videos
The second annual Yale Environment 360 Video Contest is now accepting entries. The contest honors the best environmental videos. Entries must be videos that focus on an environmental issue or theme, have not been widely viewed online, and are 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, two runners-up will each receive $500, and all 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. The deadline for entries is June 15, 2015.
08 Apr 2015:
Clay Shows Promise in
Capturing CO2 from Power Plants
Common clay can be just as effective as more advanced materials in capturing carbon dioxide emissions
from power plants, according to research by Norwegian and Slovak scientists. One particular type of clay mineral, known as smectite, was especially effective in absorbing CO2 emissions, the researchers said in the journal Scientific Reports.
One possible use for clay would be to incorporate it into filters or scrubbers in smokestacks at power plants, the scientists said. They said their research into clay’s CO2-absorbing capabilities is preliminary and would not be available for commercial use anytime soon. But the scientists said clay offers many benefits compared to some other expensive and potentially toxic CO2-scrubbing materials.
31 Mar 2015:
Major Wildlife Impacts
Still Felt 5 Years After Gulf Oil Spill
Nearly five years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico continue to die at unprecedented rates
, endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are experiencing diminished nesting success, and many species of fish are suffering from abnormal development among some juveniles after exposure to oil. Those are the conclusions of a new study
from the National Wildlife Federation, released three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon spill, which began on April 20, 2010. The study also said that populations of brown pelicans and laughing gulls have declined by 12 and 32 percent respectively, and that oil and dispersant compounds have been found in the eggs of white pelicans nesting in Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. The National Wildlife Federation said that the oil giant, BP, must be held fully accountable for the environmental damage and that fines and penalties should be used to restore habitats in the Gulf. Meanwhile, in advance of the spill’s fifth anniversary, BP is stepping up its public relations efforts
to assure consumers that life is returning to normal in the Gulf.
Natural Filters: Mussels Deployed
To Clean Up Polluted Waterways
Conservationists and scientists in the U.S. and Europe are working to re-establish declining or endangered freshwater mussel
An Eastern elliptio mussel
populations so these mollusks can use their natural filtration abilities to clean up pollution in waterways. One such program has been established on the U.S.’s Delaware River, where environmentalists and biologists are reseeding mussel populations in the more polluted sections of the river and in tributary streams. Water companies have expressed interest in these programs in the hope that large populations of freshwater mussels might eventually relieve the companies of some of the burden and expense of mechanical water filtration.
Read the article.
26 Mar 2015:
Pollution May Trigger Heath
Problems in Deep-Water Fish, Study Says
Fish living in deep waters near continental slopes have tumors, liver pathologies, and other health problems that may be
Microscopic abnormality in a black scabbardfish liver.
linked to human-generated pollution, researchers report
in the journal Marine Environmental Research
. They also describe the first case of a deep-water fish species with an “intersex” condition — a blend of male and female sex organs. In the study, which looked at fish in the Bay of Biscay west of France, researchers found a wide range of degenerative and inflammatory lesions in fish living along the continental slope, which can act as a sink for heavy metal contaminants and organic pollutants such as PCBs and pesticides. The fish that live in these deep waters are often extremely long-lived — some can be 100 years old — which allows them to bioaccumulate such contaminants. However, linking the fishes' physiological changes to pollution is preliminary at this time, the researchers said.
18 Mar 2015:
Biodegradable Plastics Are as
Persistent as Regular Plastics, Study Finds
Plastics designed to degrade don't break down any faster than their conventional counterparts, according to research
Plastic accumulated along the Los Angeles River.
published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology
. Because most plastics accumulate in landfills and remain intact for decades or longer, some manufacturers have begun producing plastics with proprietary blends of additives that are supposed to make the materials biodegradable, and a number of countries have adopted legislation promoting the use of those additives. But in laboratory tests, researchers found the plastics with biodegradation-promoting additives fared no better than conventional plastics in any of three different disposal scenarios — simulated landfill conditions, compost, and soil burial for three years. Previous research looked at plastics buried in soil for 10 years, the authors note, and found that only 5 percent of the so-called biodegradable plastic decomposed.
06 Mar 2015:
Los Angeles City Council Says
Vegetables Can Be Grown Along Sidewalks
The Los Angeles, California, City Council voted
this week to allow residents to grow fruits
Planting in a parkway in Los Angeles, Calif.
and vegetables in the small strips of city-owned land between the sidewalk and street. Doing so used to require a $400 permit, essentially preventing lower-income residents from using the green spaces, which are also known as parkways. Community groups have been pushing for many years to do away with the permit fee in hopes of improving low-income communities' access to healthy foods, and the council has been working on the ordinance change for almost two years. The mayor is expected to approve the change next week, and if he does, the ordinance will go into effect in 30 days.
27 Feb 2015:
Growing Risks to India's
Water Supply Mapped With New Online Tool
A new online tool
could help water users in India understand the risks to their water supply, which is dwindling and increasingly
polluted, recent analyses show. The tool, created by 13 organizations including the World Resources Institute
, allows users to see where the competition for surface water is most intense, where groundwater levels are dropping significantly, and where pollution levels exceed safety standards. Northwest India, for example, faces extremely high surface water stress as well as low groundwater levels, as this map shows. Overall, 54 percent of India is under high or extremely high water stress, an equal portion is seeing declining groundwater levels, and more 130 million people live where at least one pollutant exceeds national safety standards, according to the World Resources Institute.
25 Feb 2015:
Global Pesticide Map Shows
Large Areas of High Water Pollution Risk
Streams across roughly 40 percent of the planet's land area are at risk of pollution from pesticides, according to
Risk for pesticide pollution
published in the journal Environmental Pollution
. Surface waters in the Mediterranean region, the United States, Central America, and Southeast Asia are particularly at risk, according to the study, which produced the first global map of pesticide pollution risk. Taking into account weather data, terrain, pesticide application rates, and land use patterns, the map shows that the risk of pesticide pollution is relatively low in Canada and northern Europe but increases closer to the Equator. More areas are likely to face high pesticide pollution risk as global population grows and the climate warms, the researchers say, because agricultural activity and crop pests will both intensify, likely requiring even higher rates of pesticide use.
24 Feb 2015:
New Map Shows Background
Noise Levels Across the United States
A new map by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) shows America's quietest and noisiest places. The park service
mapped background noise levels across the country on an average summer day using 1.5 million hours of acoustical data. The quietest areas of the country, such as Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, are shown in deep blue on this map and are likely as quiet now as they were before European colonization, NPS researchers say. They are collecting the data as part of an effort to determine whether and how wild animals are affected by anthropogenic noise pollution. Owls and bats, for example, rely on hearing faint rustles from insects and rodents, and scientists think human-driven noise could be drowning out those subtle signals in many areas of the country.
03 Feb 2015:
Nine of 10 Cities in China Failed
Air Quality Standards, Government Says
Roughly 90 percent of China's large cities did not meet national air quality standards last year, according to the country's
Smog over the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
environment ministry. Only eight of the 74 cities monitored by the ministry met standards for pollution metrics such as ozone, carbon monoxide, and fine particle concentrations, according to a report published on the ministry's website. The poor results actually represent an improvement over 2013, when only three of the 74 cities met air quality standards, Reuters reports
. Last year, after residents grew increasingly alarmed about air quality in metropolitan areas, China promised to "declare war on pollution" by slashing coal use and closing heavily polluting factories. Still, the government does not expect the national average for fine particle pollution to reach official standards until 2030 or later.
30 Jan 2015:
Thunderstorms Move Ozone
Toward Surface of Earth, Research Shows
Thunderstorms move a significant amount of ozone from the stratosphere down toward the earth's surface — a process
Thunderstorms transport ozone toward earth.
that could have important impacts on climate, according to
a recent study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
. Ozone shields the planet from the sun's ultraviolet rays when it's in the stratosphere, the second-lowest layer of the atmosphere, but ozone acts as a powerful greenhouse gas and pollutant when it's nearer to the earth's surface, in the troposphere. The study found that massive thunderheads, which can rise 50,000 feet above the ground, disturb the atmosphere and allow ozone to pour into the troposphere. Scientists had not previously known that storms play a key role in transporting ozone. The new findings could impact climate models, researchers say, especially since storms are expected to become more frequent and intense as the earth warms.
27 Jan 2015:
Pollinator Loss Could Put
Poor Nations at Risk for Malnutrition
Declining pollinator populations could leave as many as half of the people in developing countries facing nutritional deficiencies, according to
researchers from the University of Vermont and the Harvard School of Public Health. In the study — the first to link pollinator declines directly to human nutrition — researchers collected detailed data about people's daily diets in parts of Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda, and Bangladesh. They found that in Mozambique, for example, many children and mothers are barely able to meet their needs for micronutrients, especially vitamin A, which is important for preventing blindness and infectious diseases. Fruits and vegetables were an important source of that nutrient for many people in the study, and those crops are highly dependent on pollinators, researchers say — for example, yields of mangoes, which are high in vitamin A, would likely be cut by 65 percent without them. Pollinator losses might also lead to folate deficiency, they say, which is associated with neural tube defects.
26 Jan 2015:
Oil Spills Can Lead to Toxic
Arsenic Water Contamination, Study Says
When petroleum breaks down in underground aquifers, toxic arsenic — up to 23 times the current drinking water
Water sampling at the Minnesota oil-spill test site.
standard — can be released into groundwater, according to
a study by U.S. Geological Survey and Virginia Tech researchers, who analyzed samples collected over 32 years from a petroleum-spill research site in Minnesota. Arsenic, a toxin and carcinogen linked to numerous forms of cancer, is naturally present in most soils and sediments, but is not typically a health concern because its chemical properties keep it bound within soil and minerals. However, certain chemical reactions associated with petroleum contamination and microbial activity in low-oxygen environments, such as in aquifers, change the chemical state of the arsenic so that it can enter the groundwater, researchers say.
21 Jan 2015:
Filtering Polluted Stormwater
Through Soil Can Protect Salmon, Study Says
Filtering polluted runoff from urban areas through a simple soil mixture dramatically reduced the water's toxic metal and
A pair of coho salmon.
hydrocarbon content and made it safe for coho salmon and the insects they eat, according to new research
. Scientists collected polluted runoff from a four-lane highway in Seattle, then filtered part of the water through a mixture of sand, compost, and shredded bark. Coho salmon and aquatic insects thrived in the filtered stormwater, but they quickly died in the unfiltered water, researchers reported in the journal Chemosphere
. Chemical analyses showed that filtering the water through the soil mixture reduced toxic metals by 30 to 99 percent, polyaromatic hydrocarbons to levels at or below detection, and organic matter by more than 40 percent. The research supports the use of rain gardens and other natural stormwater filtration systems, the authors say.
09 Jan 2015:
Most Physicians Already Seeing
Health Effects of Climate Change in Patients
In a survey
of physicians in the American Thoracic Society (ATS), the majority of doctors said their patients
Results of survey on climate change and patient health
were already experiencing medical conditions associated with climate change and that physicians should be educating their patients and policy makers about climate-related health effects. Seventy-seven percent of ATS physicians — a group of doctors specializing in respiratory health and critical care — said air pollution associated with climate change is exacerbating chronic conditions such as asthma in their patients. Nearly 60 percent reported increases in allergies from plants or mold and injuries from severe weather related to climate change. Many of the physicians who responded to the survey said exposure to smoke from wildfires had caused or worsened lung conditions in their patients, and changes in precipitation and weather patterns seemed to be affecting patients as well, the Huffington Post
08 Jan 2015:
Land Disturbances Darken Snow
And Increase Melt Rate, Researchers Say
Land disturbances, such as agricultural practices and development, may have a big impact on snow purity and
Sampling snowpack in Montana
melt rates, according to
a large-scale survey of impurities in North American snow by researchers at the University of Washington. The researchers were particularly interested in the Bakken oil fields of northwest North Dakota. Before undertaking the study, they predicted that diesel emissions and air pollution associated with oil exploration would darken the snowpack, decreasing the amount of sunlight it reflects and increasing its melt rate. They found, however, that while these activities do add soot to the snow, the dirt they stir up adds an equal amount of impurities to the snowpack. Disturbances from clearing oil pads, new housing sites, agricultural activities, and extra truck traffic on unpaved roads add a significant amount of dirt to snowfields, they found.
17 Dec 2014:
Obama Protects Alaska's
Bristol Bay From Oil and Gas Development
President Obama yesterday announced protections for Bristol Bay, Alaska
A grizzly bear catches a salmon in Bristol Bay.
of the most productive fishing grounds in the nation, from future oil and gas development. The president's action is expected to benefit commercial fishermen and Native Alaskans and boost conservation efforts in the region, which is roughly the size of Florida. Noting that Bristol Bay is the world's largest sockeye salmon fishery and the source of 40 percent of U.S. wild-caught seafood — a catch worth $2 billion annually — Obama vowed to ensure long-term safeguards for the bay. The region has been under protection intermittently since 1989, when the Exxon Valdez spill prompted a federal moratorium on offshore drilling. "It is a natural wonder, and it’s something that’s just too precious to be putting out to the highest bidder," Obama said in a video message
. The federal government is still considering whether to allow development of what would be North America's largest open-pit mine
in the bay's watershed.
19 Nov 2014:
Global Maritime Shipping
Traffic Has Grown by 300 Percent Since 1992
Maritime traffic has increased four-fold over the past 20 years, causing more water, air, and noise pollution in
Maritime shipping traffic has increased rapidly.
the world's oceans and seas, according to a new study
quantifying global shipping traffic. Traffic went up in every ocean during the 20 years of the study, except off the coast of Somalia, where piracy has almost completely halted commercial shipping since 2006. In the Indian Ocean, where the world’s busiest shipping lanes are located, ship traffic grew by more than 300 percent over the 20-year period, according to the report published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters
. Burgeoning ship traffic has increased the amount air pollution, particularly above the Sri Lanka-Sumatra-China shipping lane, where researchers recorded a 50-percent increase in nitrogen dioxide, a common air pollutant, over the 20-year period. Shipping is also a major source of noise pollution, which can be harmful to marine mammals, the authors note.
18 Nov 2014:
Social Media Can Help Track Severity of Air Pollution, Researchers Say
Social media posts can help researchers estimate air pollution levels with significant accuracy, according to a team of computer scientists from the University of Wisconsin
. The researchers analyzed posts on Weibo — a Twitter-like site that is China's most popular social media outlet — from 108 Chinese cities over 30 days, tracking how often people complained about the air and the words they used to describe air quality. The study showed that the process can provide accurate, real-time information on the air quality index, a widely used measure of common air pollutants. Large Chinese cities sometimes have physical monitoring stations to gauge pollution levels, but smaller cities generally do not because monitors are expensive to install and maintain. The researchers hope these findings will help residents of smaller towns and less affluent areas understand the severity of their local air pollution. Between 350,000 and 500,000 Chinese citizens die prematurely each year because of air pollution, a former Chinese health minister estimated in the journal The Lancet
28 Oct 2014:
Scientists Find Seafloor Fallout Plume of Oil from Deepwater Horizon Spill
Researchers say they have found a large fallout plume of oil on the seafloor from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon
Deepwater Horizon oil at the surface of the ocean
disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. According to a report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
, a portion of the 2 million barrels of oil thought to be trapped in the deep sea after the spill appears to have settled across a 1,250-square-mile patch of the seafloor centered around the Macondo Well, which discharged an estimated 5 million barrels of oil in the nearly three months between its blowout in April and eventual capping in July. The oil is concentrated in the top half-inch of the seafloor, and mostly distributed in patchy deposits to the southwest of the well, the study found. These deposits account for between 4 and 31 percent of the Macondo oil sequestered in the deep ocean, researchers estimate. The rest has likely been deposited outside this area, they say, but has evaded detection so far because of its patchiness.