The Global Fool

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As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger
Aug02

As coal mining declines, community mental health problems linger

Roberta Attanasio, Georgia State University The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters. As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs. But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades. Environmental contaminants The communities that reside in proximity to the devastated lands where mountaintop removal mining occurs – some of the poorest in the nation – are concentrated in a 65-county area in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and northeastern Tennessee. They are also hit by the economic downturn caused by the decline of the local coal industry. Healthwise, Appalachian populations suffer disproportionately higher morbidity and mortality compared with the nation as a whole. A study that examined the elevated mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining areas for 1979-2005 linked coal mining to “socioeconomic disadvantages” and concluded that the human cost of the Appalachian coal mining economy outweighed its economic benefits. Results from research published in 2011 show that mountaintop mining areas, in particular, are associated with the lowest health-related quality of life even in comparison to counties with other forms of coal mining. So, what makes mountaintop removal mining such a scourge for human health? To remove the top of the mountains, coal companies use destructive processes. In order to extract the underlying coal seams, a peak’s forest and brush are clear-cut and the topsoil is scraped away. The resulting debris is often set on fire. Then, explosives are poured into huge holes to literally blast off up to 800 to 1,000 feet of mountaintops. Draglines – huge machines able to scoop up to 100 tons in a single load – push rock and dirt into nearby streams and valleys, damaging waterways and life associated with them. The result is not only a devastated landscape and the crushing of entire ecosystems, but also the dispersion in the environment of toxic pollutants. To learn more...

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Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?
Apr25

Pharmaceuticals in Drinking Water?

By Roberta Attanasio The problem of contaminated tap water in the U.S. goes well beyond Flint—and also beyond lead. There are many more toxic chemicals in our drinking water that we like to believe. Communities in New York, New Hampshire and Vermont recently found elevated levels of PFOA, a suspected carcinogen, in their water supplies. PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, is a synthetic perfluoroalkyl chemical used to manufacture nonstick pan coatings and water-resistant clothing. And, even more recent is the finding that water discharged from Burlington’s wastewater treatment plant into Lake Champlain—the source of drinking water for tens of thousands of people in the Burlington area—contains concentrations of pharmaceuticals high enough to reflect demographic shifts in the city. The presence of pharmaceuticals in drinking water from different U.S. areas has been know for more than a few years. A report publicly released in 2011 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office revealed that drinking water in some metropolitan areas contains pharmaceuticals, and raised concerns about their potential impact on human health. According to the World Health Organization “Pharmaceuticals are synthetic or natural chemicals that can be found in prescription medicines, over-the-counter therapeutic drugs and veterinary drugs. Pharmaceuticals contain active ingredients that have been designed to have pharmacological effects and confer significant benefits to society. Pharmaceuticals can be introduced into water sources through sewage, which carries the excreta of individuals and patients who have used these chemicals, from uncontrolled drug disposal (e.g. discarding drugs into toilets) and from agricultural runoff comprising livestock manure. They have become chemicals of emerging concern to the public because of their potential to reach drinking-water.” Emma Rosi-Marshall, a scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and lead author of a study published in 2013 on the effects of pharmaceutical pollution on aquatic life and water quality, said in a press release: “Pharmaceutical pollution is now detected in waters throughout the world. Causes include aging infrastructure, sewage overflows, and agricultural runoff. Even when waste water makes it to sewage treatment facilities, they aren’t equipped to remove pharmaceuticals. As a result, our streams and rivers are exposed to a cocktail of synthetic compounds, from stimulants and antibiotics to analgesics and antihistamines.” Results from a study published this year in the journal Science of the Total Environment show that water samples from private wells on Cape Cod are contaminated not only by perfluoroalkyl chemicals and flame retardants, but also by a dozen different pharmaceuticals. The researchers found that sulfamethoxazole, an antibiotic used to treat urinary tract infections, and carbamazepine, a drug used to treat seizures, nerve pain, and bipolar disorder, were among the most common pharmaceuticals detected. The researchers also found that...

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Soils Are Threatened: Can We Halt The Problem?
Dec04

Soils Are Threatened: Can We Halt The Problem?

By Roberta Attanasio Today, December 4, 2015, is World Soil Day — a day to connect people with soils, and raise awareness of their critical importance in our lives. Soils — the reservoir for at least a quarter of global biodiversity — have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, and life. The maintenance or enhancement of global soil resources is essential to meet the world’s need for food, water, and energy security. Soil loss is an unfolding global disaster that will have catastrophic effects on world food production, according to scientists from the University of Sheffield’s Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.  “At the moment, intensive agriculture is unsustainable — under the intensive farming system current crop yields are maintained through the heavy use of fertilizers, which require high energy inputs to supply inorganic nitrogen via the industrial Haber-Bosch process. This consumes five per cent of the world’s natural gas production and two per cent of the world’s annual energy supply.” The scientists’ research is published in a report (A sustainable model for intensive agriculture) presented at the recent climate talks in Paris. But soil is important not only for agricultural practices. “Soil is a vital part of the natural environment. It is just as important as plants, animals, rocks, landforms, lakes, and rivers. It influences the distribution of plant species, and provides a habitat for a wide range of organisms. It controls the flow of water and chemical substances between the atmosphere and the earth, and acts as both a source and store for gasses in the atmosphere. Soil, together with the plant and animal life it supports, the rock on which it develops, its position in the landscape and the climate it experiences, form an amazingly intricate natural system. Soil may look still and lifeless, but this impression couldn’t be further from the truth. It is constantly changing and developing through time. Soil is always responding to changes in environmental factors, along with the influences of man and land use. Some changes in the soil will be of short duration and reversible, others will be a permanent feature of soil development.” So, what is the current status of soils, considering the influences of man and land use? We know that soil loss is an unfolding global disaster. There is another report that adds more information: The Status of the World’s Soil Resources, which has been produced by FAO’s Intergovernmental Technical Panel on Soils, and it has been released today, on Soil World Day. The report, which brings together the work of 200 soil scientists from 60 countries, concludes that...

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Global Threats: Water Scarcity and Uncertainty in the Estimates of Groundwater Availability
Jun28

Global Threats: Water Scarcity and Uncertainty in the Estimates of Groundwater Availability

By Roberta Attanasio Groundwater is any water that lies in aquifers beneath the land surface. While some of the water that falls as precipitation is channeled into streams or lakes, and some is used by plants or evaporates back into the atmosphere, most of it seeps underground in the cracks and spaces present in soil, sand and rock. Underground layers of rock that are saturated with groundwater are called aquifers. The groundwater contained in aquifers is one of the most important sources of water on our planet, and can be brought to the surface through natural springs or by pumping. Groundwater is constantly replenished (recharged), as part of the natural water cycle, by rain and melting snow, and to a smaller extent by surface water (rivers and lakes). Groundwater recharge is an important process for sustainable groundwater management — the volume of water extracted from an aquifer should be less than or equal to the volume of water that is recharged. Artificial recharge — the practice of increasing by artificial means the amount of water that enters an aquifer — is now gaining increasing acceptance for the support of sustainable groundwater management. Groundwater is among the most important natural resources in the United States. It provides half our drinking water and is essential to the vitality of agriculture and industry, as well as to the health of rivers, wetlands, and estuaries throughout the country. However, the future availability of groundwater to meet domestic, agricultural, industrial, and environmental needs is uncertain. Large-scale development of groundwater resources is leading to declines in groundwater levels not only in the United States, but also at a global level. In many arid and semi-arid regions in which water scarcity is almost endemic, groundwater plays a major role in meeting domestic and irrigation demands. Unfortunately, it is massively used for irrigation without adequate planning, raising serious concerns on the sustainability of such an intensive use of groundwater resources. Now, results from two new studies published in the journal Water Resources Research show that, while civilization is rapidly draining some of its largest groundwater basins, there is little to no accurate data about how much water remains in them. The researchers conclude that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater quickly without knowing when it might run out. The studies characterized groundwater losses via data from space, using readings generated by NASA’s twin GRACE satellites through measurements of dips and bumps in Earth’s gravity, which is affected by the weight of water. In one of the studies (Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE), researchers examined — between 2003 and 2013 — the planet’s 37 largest aquifers. The eight...

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Global Threats: Climate Change is a Medical Emergency
Jun23

Global Threats: Climate Change is a Medical Emergency

By Roberta Attanasio For many years, we’ve been aware of the impacts of global climate change on human health and well-being. For example, safe drinking water, sufficient food, and secure shelter are threatened by rising sea levels and severe weather events. Heat waves dramatically increase death rates not only from heat strokes, but also from complications arising from cardiovascular, respiratory, and cerebrovascular diseases. However, the impacts of global climate change on human health are even greater than previously thought — according to a report published today (June 23, 2015) in The Lancet, the threat from climate change is so great that it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health. The report (Health and climate change: policy responses to protect public health) which frames climate change as a health issue, is by a multidisciplinary and international Commission — the Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change — formed to map out the impacts of climate change, and the necessary policy responses, in order to ensure the highest attainable standards of health for populations worldwide. More precisely, the Commission includes European and Chinese climate scientists and geographers, social and environmental scientists, biodiversity experts, engineers and energy policy experts, economists, political scientists and public policy experts, and health professionals. By making the case for climate change as a health issue, the Commission hopes for greater public resonance. Public concern about the health effects of climate change has the potential to accelerate political action. The report shows that the direct health impacts of climate change come from the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, especially heat waves, floods, droughts and storms, whereas the indirect impacts come from changes in infectious disease patterns, air pollution, food insecurity and malnutrition, involuntary migration, displacement and conflicts. Because appropriate responses to mitigate and adapt to climate change have direct and indirect health benefits — from reducing air pollution to improving diet — concerted global efforts to tackle climate change represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. Commission co-Chair Professor Peng Gong, from Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, said in a press release: “The health community has responded too many grave threats to health in the past. It took on entrenched interests such as the tobacco industry, and led the fight against HIV/AIDS. Now is the time for us to lead the way in responding to another great threat to human and environmental health of our generation.” The commission points out that a strong international consensus is essential to move the world to a global low-carbon economy, harnessing a crucial opportunity to protect human health —...

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