Category Archives: Environment

Map of the day: Health of the planet’s vegetation

From the government’s National Integrated Global Drought Information System, with red being worst and blue best:


Plastics prove pervasive in Great Lakes tributaries

The types of plastics pervasive in streams leading to the Great Lakes, via the USGS microplastics website.

The types of plastics pervasive in streams leading to the Great Lakes, via the USGS microplastics website.

As longtime readers know, one of our ongoing concerns here has been the growing body of evidence that plastics, still relatively new when esnl
was a child, are now being linked to a growing number of environmental woes and health problems.

And as with DDTvinyl chloride, asbestos, and a host of other compounds, we are only learning about the risks years after the substances have invaded our lives and environments.

Now comes word that plastics, present everywhere in our homes, workplaces, and oceans, have invaded the waters leading into Great Lakes.

From the U.S. Geological Survey:

Microplastics fall off decomposing bottles and bags, wear off of synthetic clothing and are manufactured into some toothpastes and lotions. Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and State University of New York at Fredonia studied 107 water samples collected from 29 Great Lakes tributaries in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and New York, and found microplastics in all samples. Together, these 29 tributaries account for approximately 22 percent of the total river water that flows into the Great Lakes.

“These microplastics, which are harmful to animal and possibly human health, will continue to accumulate in the Great Lakes well into the future,” said Austin Baldwin, a USGS scientist and the lead author of the report. “Our findings can help water managers better understand the types and sources of microplastics in rivers, and which rivers are the most polluted with microplastics.”

Baldwin noted that the study underestimates the actual microplastic concentrations in the rivers because the scientists sampled large microplastics greater than 0.33 millimeters (mm). The majority of microplastics are smaller than 0.1 mm.

Key findings from the study include:

  • The highest concentration of microplastics was detected in the Huron River at Ann Arbor, Michigan, at 32 particles per cubic meter, or p/m3;
  • High levels of microplastics were also detected in the Buffalo River at Buffalo, New York (31 p/m3), the Ashtabula River near Ashtabula, Ohio (23 p/m3), and the Clinton River near Mt. Clemens, Michigan (21 p/m3);
  • The median concentration of microplastics in all samples was 1.9 p/m3;
  • Urban watersheds had the highest concentrations of microplastics; and
  • Microplastics were also present in streams in forested and agricultural areas.

The scientists found various forms of microplastics in the river samples: fibers, fragments, films, foams, and pellets or beads. Plastic fibers, which come from items such as synthetic clothes, diapers and cigarette butts, were the most common type detected, at 71 percent of the total particles. The least common form found in the river water was microbeads, which are the only form banned by the United States Congress. This ban has not yet taken effect.

“We were surprised by the small amount of plastic beads and high amount of fibers found in the samples,” Baldwin said. “These unexpected findings demonstrate how studies like ours are critical to better understanding the many forms and fates of microplastics in the environment.”

Ingested microplastics can cause digestive and reproductive problems, as well as death, in fish, birds and other animals. Unhealthy additives in the plastic, including flame retardants and antimicrobials, have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans. Also, pollutants such as pesticides, trace metals and even pathogens can accumulate at high concentrations on microplastic particles.

Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere. Aside from rivers, microplastics are also common in lakes and oceans, in freshwater and marine fish, oysters and mussels, and in sediment. They are deposited onto land and water surfaces from the atmosphere.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded the new study. For more information on USGS microplastics research, please visit the USGS Great Lakes Restoration Initiative website.

Headline of the day: It’s about damn time

From teleSUR English:

 CEO’s Can Now Be Prosecuted Like War Criminals at the Hague

  • The International Criminal Court announced Thursday it will now hold corporate executives and governments legally responsible for environmental crimes.
  • The Hague court made explicit references to widening its approach to include land grabbing, which has allowed private corporations, with the help of governments, to take over large of areas of foreign land to exploit natural resources. It will also prosecute for environmental destruction.

DroughtWatch: California’s levels hold constant

Three months after the last downgrades, and California’s drought levels remain unchanged across the board, with all of the Golden State involved in one or another level of the official categories of water deprivation of the United States Drought Monitor:


Massive mercury pollution plagues the U.S. West

From the study, a map of major regions afflicted by mercury contamination.

From the study, a map of major regions afflicted by mercury contamination.

From the Biodiversity Research Institute:

Biodiversity Research Institute (BRI) announces findings from the Western North America Mercury Synthesis, an effort to assess environmental mercury deposition across the western region of the continent. An international team led by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and co-organized by BRI, recently documented widespread mercury contamination in air, soil, sediment, plants, fish, and wildlife at various levels across this region. They evaluated potential risk from mercury to human, fish, and wildlife heath, and examined resource management activities that influence this risk.

“Mercury is widespread in the environment, and under certain conditions poses a substantial threat to environmental health and natural resource conservation,” says Collin Eagles-Smith, Ph.D., USGS ecologist and team lead.

The research team gathered decades of mercury data to examine patterns of mercury and methylmercury in numerous components of the western landscape. The results show where mercury occurs in western North America, how it moves through the environment, and the processes that influence its movement and transfer to aquatic food chains.

“This integrated effort provides critical information on mercury pathways to humans and wildlife that government regulators, lawmakers, and the public can use to make decisions,” says David Evers, Ph.D., executive director and chief scientist of Biodiversity Research Institute and co-organizer of the project. “The Western mercury synthesis builds upon our Northeastern and Great Lakes regional efforts through which we collected and analyzed environmental mercury data that were often separated by sample type.” The initiative for the western region of the continent continues BRI’s efforts to assess environmental mercury deposition across North America in the Institute’s series of studies called Mercury Connections.

Complete findings for the Western North America Mercury Synthesis (the Western Synthesis) have been published in a 2016 special issue of Science of The Total Environment: Mercury in Western North America—Spatiotemporal Patterns, Biogeochemistry, Bioaccumulation, and Risks [$41.95 to read]. Dr. Evers is co-author on five out of the 17 papers published in this Virtual Special Issue (available only online). All of the papers will also be published in the October issue of the journal.

Papers [equally expensive] co-authored by Dr. Evers include:

  1. Mercury in western North America: A synthesis of environmental contamination, fluxes, bioaccumulation, and risk to fish and wildlife
  2. Mercury risk to avian piscivores across western United States and Canada
  3. Assessing potential health risks to fish and humans using mercury concentrations in inland fish from across western Canada and the United States
  4. Avian mercury exposure and toxicological risk across western North America: A synthesis
  5. Spatial and temporal patterns of mercury concentrations in freshwater fish across the Western United States and Canada

Summary of Key Findings and Implications (related to fish and wildlife) include:

  • Methylmercury contamination in fish and birds is common in many areas throughout western North America, and large-scale ecological attributes, such as climate and land cover, are important factors influencing mercury contamination and availability to animals.
  • Fish and birds in many areas were found to have mercury concentrations above levels associated with toxicity.
  • Patterns of methylmercury, the most toxic form of mercury, exposure in fish and wildlife across western North America do not overlap with patterns of inorganic mercury on the landscape, indicating a disconnect between inorganic mercury distribution and exposure in fish and wildlife
  • Land and water management activities can strongly influence how methylmercury is created and transferred to fish, wildlife, and humans.

Effective management of environmental health risks associated with mercury goes beyond controlling sources of inorganic mercury, and would be improved with tools for controlling the production of methylmercury and its introduction to animal and human food sources

The Western Synthesis results suggest that effective management of environmental health risks associated with mercury goes beyond controlling sources of inorganic mercury, and could be improved by development of tools to control the production of methylmercury and its bioaccumulation through the food web, ultimately affecting animals and humans.

For a complete summary of the Western Synthesis results, visit: USGS Environmental Health Science Feature

This body of work was conducted as part of the Western North America Mercury Synthesis Working Group and supported by the USGS John Wesley Powell Center for Analysis and Synthesis. The Working Group is comprised of partners from other U.S. and Canadian federal, state, and provincial agencies, as well as academic institutions and non-governmental organizations. Primary funding support was provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, National Park Service, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with additional support from the individual authors’ organizations.

More health woes are linked linked to fracking wells

From the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health:

New research suggests that Pennsylvania residents with the highest exposure to active natural gas wells operated by the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) industry are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a combination of migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms and severe fatigue.

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, reporting online Aug. 25 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives [open access], say their findings add to a growing body of evidence linking the fracking industry to health problems.

“These three health conditions can have debilitating impacts on people’s lives,” says first author Aaron W. Tustin, MD, MPH, a resident physician in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “In addition, they cost the health care system a lot of money. Our data suggest these symptoms are associated with proximity to the fracking industry.”

For their study, Tustin and his colleagues created a questionnaire and received responses from 7,785 adult primary care patients of the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania.

The questionnaires were returned between April and October of 2014.

The researchers found that 1,765 respondents (23 percent) suffered from migraines, 1,930 people (25 percent) experienced severe fatigue and 1,850 (24 percent) had current symptoms of chronic rhinosinusitis (defined as three or more months of nasal and sinus symptoms).

The researchers used publicly available well data to estimate participants’ exposure to the fracking industry. Their models accounted for the size and number of wells, as well as the distance between wells and people’s homes.

While no single health condition was associated with proximity to active wells, those who met criteria for two or more of the health conditions were nearly twice as likely to live closer to more or larger wells.

“We don’t know specifically why people in close proximity to these larger wells are more likely to be sick,” says the study’s senior author Brian S. Schwartz, MD, MS, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. “We need to find a way to better understand the correlation and, hopefully, do something to protect the health of these people.”

Previous research conducted by Schwartz and colleagues has linked the fracking industry to increases in premature births, asthma attacks and indoor radon concentrations.

Tustin and his colleagues say there are plausible explanations for how fracking could cause these health conditions. Well development generates air pollution, which could provoke nasal and sinus symptoms. This type of drilling also produces stressors such as odors, noise, bright lights and heavy truck traffic. Any of these stressors could increase the risk of symptoms. Migraine headaches, for example, are known to be triggered by odors in some individuals.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the injection of millions of liters of water into deep rock formations to liberate natural gas or petroleum. Energy companies moved toward fracking in the early 2000s when natural gas prices were high and supplies were low. Pennsylvania has embraced the industry. Over 9,000 fracking wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past decade. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded rapidly in recent years in states such as Colorado, North Dakota, Wyoming, West Virginia and Ohio. In contrast, New York has banned fracking and Maryland has delayed well production.

Maryland’s fracking moratorium is set to expire in October 2017. The moratorium was passed in 2015 out of concern about fracking’s potentially negative environmental effects, before the more recent health studies were completed. Schwartz says Maryland regulators should consider these new scientific findings when they decide whether to allow drilling.

“The moratorium was put in place before we even knew that there were health effects associated with these wells,” Schwartz says. “Now that we do, regulators need to carefully consider their next steps.”

“Associations between unconventional natural gas development and nasal and sinus, migraine headache, and fatigue symptoms in Pennsylvania” was written by Aaron W. Tustin; Annemarie G. Hirsch; Sara G. Rasmussen; Joan A. Casey; Karen Bandeen-Roche and Brian S. Schwartz.

Map of the day: Planet’s wilderness is vanishing

Change in the Distribution of Wilderness and Globally Significant Wilderness Areas since the Early 1990s Globally significant wilderness areas are defined as wilderness areas >10,000 km2. The insets are focused on the Amazon (A), the western Sahara (B), the West Siberian taiga (C), and Borneo (D).

Change in the Distribution of Wilderness and Globally Significant Wilderness Areas since the Early 1990s. Globally significant wilderness areas are defined as wilderness areas >10,000 km2. The insets are focused on the Amazon (A), the western Sahara (B), the West Siberian taiga (C), and Borneo (D).

From the Wildlife Conservation Society:

Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology [open access] show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the last 20 years. They demonstrate alarming losses comprising a tenth of global wilderness since the 1990s – an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon. The Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say.

“Globally important wilderness areas—despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities—are completely ignored in environmental policy,” says Dr James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”

Watson says much policy attention has been paid to the loss of species, but comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems, especially wilderness areas which tend to be relatively understudied. To fill that gap, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with “wilderness” being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s.

This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km2 (around 20 percent of the world’s land area) now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km2 (almost 10 percent) of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering” Dr Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia. “We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we’ve foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world. Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left”.

Watson says that the United Nations and others have ignored globally significant wilderness areas in key multilateral environmental agreements and this must change.

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet,” Watson says. “We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”