Pollution & Health
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.
11 Mar 2016:
Five Years After Nuclear Disaster
Fukushima Remains Highly Contaminated
It has been five years since a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami caused a meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.
Regulators visit the Fukushima site in 2014.
While a few towns closed after the disaster have reopened and some locals have returned, groundwater en route to the ocean, as well as nearby soils, remains highly contaminated with radioactive waste. Toxic water and soil that has been removed by the cleanup project’s 8,000 workers sits in a growing number of storage tanks on the property, several of which have leaked. Radiation levels are so high that robots sent to clean up the power plant itself are reportedly malfunctioning
, their circuits fried. "Fukushima Dai-ichi is a complicated cleanup site," said
Dale Klein, a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission who now consults for the Tokyo Electric Power Company, which owns the plant. "This will be a several-decades process of cleanup.”
10 Mar 2016:
China Aims to Pass Soil Pollution
Law, Addressing Widespread Contamination
China is aiming to pass its first soil pollution law next year to address what Chinese officials are calling a “serious” problem of widespread contamination of the nation’s agricultural land.
Li Feng/Yale E360
Wastewater from a chemical plant in China.
The pollution is the result of three decades of rapid economic and industrial development that left landscapes ridden with toxins and heavy metals
, contaminated staple crops like rice, and jeopardized public health. “Looking at the results of soil pollution surveys from relevant departments of the State Council … it's not easy to be optimistic. Some areas are seriously polluted," Yuan Si, deputy head of parliament's Environmental Protection and Resources Conservation Committee, told
reporters. The soil pollution law has gone through 10 drafts already and will likely be put on the legislative agenda for 2017, Yuan said.
In Flint Crisis, A New Model
For Environmental Journalism
Last summer, investigative journalist Curt Guyette found himself knocking on doors of families in Flint, Michigan, carrying not only a pen and notebook, but water-testing kits. Residents had realized there was something wrong with their drinking water but Michigan officials insisted it was safe.
Guyette, the first investigative reporter in the nation hired by an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter, broke the story on possible widespread lead contamination in July. He then helped organize door-to-door testing for lead and filed Freedom of Information Act requests in search of the truth. In an interview with Yale Environment 360
, Guyette explains how he chased the story, his unique position as a Ford Foundation-funded journalist employed by ACLU Michigan, and whether this approach to journalism could be a model for rescuing in-depth, local reporting on complex environmental and public health issues.
Read the interview.
26 Feb 2016:
California Natural Gas Leak Officially Largest Leak in U.S. History
The four-month natural gas leak that sickened hundreds of Los Angeles residents and forced the evacuations of 1,800 homes this winter has officially been deemed the largest methane leak in U.S. history, according to a study
in the journal Science
A natural gas facility in California's Aliso Canyon.
The California leak spewed a total 97,100 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere, up to 60 tons per hour—the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions of 572,000 cars. Methane is a greenhouse gas dramatically more potent than carbon dioxide over a short time span. The researchers collected the data during 13 different flights through the leaking gas plume. The measurements were so high the scientists said they double-checked their recording devices. "It became obvious that there wasn't anything wrong with the instruments," said
Stephen Conley, an atmospheric scientists at the University of California-Davis who led the study. "This was just a huge event."
22 Feb 2016:
Reaching Emission Targets Could
Save 295,000 U.S. Lives by 2030, Study Says
The greenhouse emission cuts that America agreed to at the Paris climate conference may come with a significant public health benefit —the prevention of 295,000 premature deaths— according to a Duke University study
. At the December summit, 196 nations, including the U.S., agreed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In order to achieve that goal, the U.S. will need to reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2030, which would lead to a significant reduction in deadly air pollution, according to the study. “People should realize that emissions are having a big impact already… more than 100,000 deaths a year,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist at Duke and lead author of the study
. “Air pollution is a very big health challenge, it’s having a major public health impact in the U.S.” According to the World Health Organization
, about seven million people died in 2012 as a result of air pollution.
03 Feb 2016:
China’s Wind Power Sector
Experienced Rapid Growth in 2015
China installed nearly half of all new global wind power generation
last year and added as much new wind energy capacity in one year as the total capacity of the leading U.S. wind-producing states — Texas, Iowa, and California. Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that China installed nearly 29 gigawatts of new wind-power capacity last year, surpassing the previous record of 21 gigawatts in 2014. China’s new wind energy capacity dwarfed the next-largest market, the United States, which added 8.6 gigawatts in 2015. Analysts said China’s wind sector grew rapidly because of declining manufacturing and installation costs, generous government feed-in tariffs, improving transmission capacity, and the government’s campaign to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants.
27 Jan 2016:
Rush to Electric Vehicles
Is Worsening Air Pollution in China
The push by the Chinese government and the country’s automakers to expand production of electric vehicles is actually worsening air pollution
and carbon emissions because most of China’s electricity is still produced by coal-fired power plants, new studies show. Thanks to government incentives, production of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles is expected to grow six-fold to two million cars and trucks by 2020. But studies by researchers at Tsinghua University show that electric vehicles charged in China with coal-fired power produce two to five times as many particulates and other pollutants as gasoline cars. The Tsinghua studies call into question the government policy of promoting deployment of electric vehicles while the vast majority of the country’s electricity still comes from coal. “International experience shows that cleaning up the air doesn’t need to rely on electric vehicles,” said one analyst. “Clean up the power plants.”
14 Jan 2016:
Europe’s Remaining Orcas
Threatened by Banned Toxins, Study Finds
Orcas and other dolphins living in European waters are facing a severe threat from lingering toxic chemicals that have been banned for decades,
Two orcas ply the waters
according to a study led by the Zoological Society of London and published in the journal Scientific Reports
. The research, which was based on long-term studies of more than 1,000 biopsied whales, dolphins, and porpoises in European waters, found that the blubber of these cetaceans contain some of the highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the world. Without much stronger restrictions, "PCBs will continue to drive population declines or suppress population recovery in Europe for many decades to come," the study’s authors wrote. PCBs are a group of man-made chemicals previously used in the manufacture of electrical equipment, flame-retardants, and paints.
17 Dec 2015:
Severe Toxic Algal Blooms
Likely To Double in Lake Erie with Warming
The number of severe harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie will likely double over the next century, according to
Sampling lake water during a toxic algal bloom
Ohio State University. As soon as 2050, toxic algal blooms like the one that cut off Toledo's drinking water supply in 2014 will no longer be the exception, but rather the norm, the researchers say. Although several states and Canadian provinces have agreed to significantly cut nutrient runoff into the Great Lakes, the study suggests that nutrient reductions alone might not be enough to stop the toxic blooms. That's because factors associated with climate change — less winter snow, heavier spring rains, and hotter summers — supercharge the blooms, the researchers explain. "Those are perfect growing conditions for algae," said Noel Aloysius, a member of the research team. "We can reduce phosphorus by 40 percent, but the algae won't suffer as much as you might hope."
15 Dec 2015:
China Anti-Pollution Efforts
Lead to Steep Drop in Sulfur Dioxide Levels
Emissions of sulfur dioxide, a toxic gas that threatens human health and causes acid rain, have dropped sharply in the last decade
China's sulfur pollution has decreased in recent years.
in China, thanks to aggressive air pollution control initiatives by the Chinese government. As these NASA images show, levels of sulfur dioxide in China fell significantly from 2005 to 2014, while emissions of the gas increased in India during the same period. From 2012 to 2014, Chinese SO2 emissions fell especially sharply, by 50 percent. The steady drop in emissions of the noxious gas, released during the burning of coal and other fossil fuels, can be attributed to pollution control measures enacted before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the widespread installation of flue gas desulfurication devices on power plants, the switch to coal with a lower sulfur content, and the closing of coal-fired power plants in favor of less-polluting energy sources such as natural gas, wind, and solar power. India’s sulfur dioxide emissions have risen because of the rapid expansion of coal-fired power plants.