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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Quality Water, Quality Life: Aquatic Health and Contaminants in the Midcoast Oregon Salmon Watersheds
Jun08

Quality Water, Quality Life: Aquatic Health and Contaminants in the Midcoast Oregon Salmon Watersheds

A guest post by Ray Kinney From ridge tops to reefs, environmental degradation has caused many salmon populations to decline to one to ten percent of former numbers. Young salmon survival in freshwater is only 2 to 5% from egg to smolt phase just before entering the ocean phase of their life cycle. Many causative effects for this decline are known, but many remain to be clarified. Politics often prevents adequate investigation of contaminant effects for water quality. Chronic low dose accumulative effects of toxic contaminants take a toll that is generally unrecognized by fisheries managers. Our benevolent rainfall flows down out of the Coast Range to become, once again, part of the sea and the productivity of the salmon cycle of the near-shore ocean. Nutrients from the ocean, in the form of salmon and lamprey spawner carcasses, had fertilized our forests, streams, and rivers like an incoming tide for thousands of years. Our forest garden grew rich because of this tide of nutrients. Reduced numbers means reduced nutrients, which reduces development, growth, and survival abilities of the fish. The land also nourishes the sea. Freshwater flows down out of the mountains, past our farms and towns, through the jetties, and out over the continental shelf. These nutrient tides over land and sea have been shaping salmon for thousands of years, providing diversity, fitness, and resilience to the young fish and other stream organisms that support the salmon cycle complexity. For many hundreds of years humans have increasingly affected the quality of this complexity in ways that have stressed the fish. In the last two hundred years we have greatly increased pollution. Fish harvest levels increased unsustainably, while beaver and timber harvests altered the landscape stressing the salmon cycle. Increasing pollutants have contaminated the flow to the sea. Copious leaching rainfall and snowmelt dissolve and transport nutrients and contaminants down the river out of the Coast Range. Calcium and iron ride the waters downstream and out over the shelf during the winter, enriching the sea floor mud. As upwelling conditions increase in the summer, much of this iron distributes northward with the currents and combines with nitrates to fertilize plankton blooms that feed the food chain for the salmon. Iron and nitrate are in shorter supply over much of the ocean and limit productivity in many parts of the ocean. Here, off of the Oregon coast, the iron leached from our soils provides an important key to salmon ocean productivity. Large quantities of nitrate ride downstream through the freshwater, from red alder tree vegetation cover concentrations in our timberland. The red alder ‘fix’ nitrogen out of the air providing fertilizer...

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Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation
Aug09

Global Threats: Soil and Topsoil Erosion and Degradation

By Roberta Attanasio “Soil anaemia also breeds human anaemia. Micronutrient deficiency in the soil results in micronutrient malnutrition in people, since crops grown on such soils tend to be deficient in the nutrients needed to fight hidden hunger. (…) Managing our soil and water resources in a sustainable and equitable manner needs a new political vision.” M.S. Swaminathan — the “Indian Father of Green Revolution”. Soil, the earth’s skin, is one of our most valuable resources — it’s a dynamic and complex ecosystem that acts as a growing medium. Plant and animal life depend on the recycling of primary nutrients through soil processes. It plays a major role in determining the composition of the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor and, due to its water filtering function, is essential for the clean water supply of our planet.  Soil degradation is the decline in soil quality caused by its improper use.  Examples of soil degradation are loss of organic matter, decline in soil fertility, decline in structural condition, erosion (soil is naturally removed, for example by the action of water or wind), adverse changes in salinity, acidity or alkalinity, and the effects of toxic chemicals, pesticides, pollutants or excessive flooding. Back in 1984, a study by the Worldwatch Institute defined the erosion of agricultural topsoil a ”quiet crisis” that could lead to “pockets of famine” around the world. At the time, Lester R. Brown told the New York Times: ”Grave though the loss of topsoil may be, it is a quiet crisis, one that is not widely perceived. Unlike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters, this disaster of human origin is unfolding gradually.” Then, in 1992, the World Resources Institute published the results of the first global assessment of land degradation. It reported that, since World War II, about 11 percent of the world’s vegetated surface area had become degraded, mostly due to farming, overgrazing and deforestation. It pointed out that the continuation of activities leading to soil degradation would seriously affect the ability of providing growing populations with food, fuel, and fiber. Now, more than twenty years later, The Global Soil Partnership — which brings together a broad range of government and non-government stakeholders — recognized that urgent action is required to improve the health of the world’s limited soil resources and stop land degradation, so as to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water, energy and raw materials. Thus, it has endorsed a series of action plans to safeguard soil resources which provide the basis for global agricultural production. Maria Helena Semedo, Deputy Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), said: “Soil is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fibre production. Without soils we...

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Arsenic in Rice: Links to Genetic Damage
Jul27

Arsenic in Rice: Links to Genetic Damage

By The Editors Rice is a staple food for over 3 billion people worldwide. Unfortunately, rice contaminated with arsenic can be found in several regions of our planet. Although serious concerns have been raised in the past few years over the consumption of rice tainted with high levels of arsenic, there was no direct proof of its harmful effects on human populations. Now, results from a new study indicate that staple consumption of cooked rice containing high levels of arsenic leads to genotoxic damage. Arsenic, one of the heavy metals, is a chemical element normally present in water, air and soil. It is released from volcanoes and from the erosion of mineral deposits as well as from human activities (mining, burning coal, oil, gasoline and wood). Presence of arsenic in the environment is also due to its use in compounds such as pesticides, herbicides and wood preservatives.  The arsenic content in rice varies widely depending on the rice provenience: rice grown in arsenic-contaminated soil and groundwater contains higher arsenic than average. The new study, entitled “High arsenic in rice is associated with elevated genotoxic effects in humans” and published on July 22, 2013, in the scientific journal Scientific Reports, was designed to determine whether or not cooked rice with high arsenic content is sufficient to cause genotoxic effects in humans in absence of any additional exposure. The study populations consisted of individuals living in rural West Bengal, India, eating rice as a staple. To determine arsenic toxicity and genetic damage the investigators determined the frequency of micronuclei – a tell-tale sign of chromosomal damage – in cells extracted from urine samples. Increased frequency of micronuclei is known to be linked to the development of cancers. The investigators demonstrated that people eating rice containing arsenic in amounts greater than 0.2 mg/kg had higher frequencies of micronuclei than people consuming rice containing less arsenic.  The trend of greater genetic damage with increasing arsenic in rice was observed for both men and women, for tobacco-users and non-users, and for those from three different locations within the study area. The pattern observed was broadly similar to that previously seen for people exposed to arsenic through drinking high arsenic well waters, which has caused devastating health impacts, including cancers, in many parts of the world. Rice is not the only type of food that may lead to high levels of arsenic exposure. Another example is that of cooked chicken breasts. As you may remember from one of our previous posts, “Arsenic in Chickens: Finding More of What is Already Known“, a recent study found that several samples of U.S. chicken breasts contained potentially harmful...

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Arctic Pollution
May15

Arctic Pollution

By The Editors The Great White North is not in good shape.  It’s one of the most vulnerable and fragile ecosystems of our planet and is contaminated with about everything:  furans, cadmium, dioxins, chlordane, selenium, polychlorinated biphenyls, mercury, radioactive fallout. There are 8 countries that possess territories extending beyond the 66th Parallel: Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland) and Iceland. It is estimated that about 4 million people live north of the Arctic Circle, Industrial development in the Arctic is leading to waste accumulation, especially in the vicinity of indigenous villages.  However, this is not all.  It’s a global problem, a problem of global pollution.  Indeed, a major source of contamination is the spillover of industrial contaminants from other regions through air, ocean, and river currents. Pollution in the Arctic presents additional problems when compared to contamination in other regions:  Pollutant detection and monitoring as well as cleanup are difficult because of the specific climatic conditions, remoteness, and the shifting interplay between land and sea-ice.  In addition, the reduced level of sunlight does not allow the speedy break-down of contaminants, which is usually aided by solar radiation.  Therefore, the degradation process is lengthened — this leads to an increased likelihood that toxic substances will find their way into the food chain.  And….  we all know that the vulnerability of this region is greatly affected by climate change and the melting of the ice cap.  The influx of trawlers and tourists and the drilling for fossil fuels all add to the increased environmental threat experienced by this region. Below you can see an Arctic map depicting the provenience of persistent organic pollutants (POPs).  Those included in the map are hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH), chlordane, toxaphene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).  ...

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