The Global Fool

our planet is our village

Nature, Health, and Things in Between
Nov07

Nature, Health, and Things in Between

By Roberta Attanasio A decade ago, Richard Louv — author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle — coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the increasing disconnection between children and the natural world. Such disconnection negatively affects health and spiritual well-being. The concept, which was later extended to adults, provides the basis for a working framework to reshape our lives. Louv argues that by tapping into the restorative powers of nature, we can boost mental acuity and creativity; promote health and wellness; build smarter and more sustainable businesses, communities, and economies; and ultimately strengthen human bonds. Although results from several studies point out the deleterious health effects of our disconnection with nature, the current focus “is not so much on what is lost when nature experience fades, but on what is gained through more exposure to natural settings, including nearby nature in urban places.” Indeed, research shows that spending time in nature protects against depression, diabetes, obesity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and many more disorders. But, what are the pathways that lead from “exposure to greenness” to improved health? To answer this question, Ming Kuo, Director of the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), reviewed hundreds of studies examining nature’s effects on health, and published her findings in the scientific journal Frontiers in Psychology. Kuo’s findings indicate that nature enhances the functions of the immune system, thus leading to improved health. “Finding that the immune system is a primary pathway provides an answer to the question of ‘how’ nature and the body work in concert to fight disease,” she said in a press release. “I pulled every bit of the research in this area together that I could find, and was surprised to realize I could trace as many as 21 possible pathways between nature and good health — and even more surprised to realize that all but two of the pathways shared a single common denominator,” Kuo said. She added it was remarkable to see how important a role the immune system plays in every one of the diseases that nature protects against. One way to understand this relationship between nature, health, and the immune system, Kuo explained in the press release, is that exposure to nature switches the body into “rest and digest” mode, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight” mode. When the body is in “fight or flight” mode, it shuts down everything that is immediately nonessential, including the immune system. “When we feel completely safe, our body devotes resources to long-term investments that lead to good health outcomes — growing, reproducing, and...

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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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Neonicotinoid Pesticides: Bad for Bees, Bad for Many Other Species
May06

Neonicotinoid Pesticides: Bad for Bees, Bad for Many Other Species

By Roberta Attanasio Do neonicotinoid pesticides harm bees? According to scientific evidence, the answer is “yes”. Indeed, scientific evidence for the toxic effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bees is accumulating at an increasing pace. And, on the basis of scientific evidence, the European Commission banned in 2013 the use of three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam — on flowering plants. The ban was motivated by findings from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA); these findings were based on the evaluation of the scientific studies available at the time. Now, a report from the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) emphasizes that bees are not the only species affected by the use of these pesticides. The report is based on the findings of an international group of independent scientists with expertise ranging from pollination biology through systems ecology to toxicology. According to the report, there is more and more scientific evidence that widespread use of neonicotinoids has severe effects on species that are important for pollination, natural pest control, and soil productivity. For example, predatory insects such as parasitic wasps and ladybugs that aid in pest control, and earthworms that improve soil productivity, are all harmed. In addition, neonicotinoid use has a negative impact on biodiversity. Neonicotinoids are neurotoxic (poisonous to nerves or nervous tissue of insects and other organisms), and act systemically in the plants — their solubility in water allows them to be absorbed and spread via the plant’s vascular system to all of its tissues. They reach leaves, flowers, roots and stems, even pollen and nectar, and become toxic not only to sap-sucking pests such as aphids or mealybugs, but also to any other species that harvest the different parts of the plant. In addition, exposure is possible across trophic levels, as for example in the case of bees foraging on honey dew, predators exposed through ingesting prey, or soil organisms decomposing contaminated organic matter. There is also evidence for sub-lethal effects of very low levels of neonicotinoids, over extended periods of time, on non-target beneficial organisms. Repeated sub-lethal doses may eventually become deadly once a certain threshold is passed. The EASAC report acknowledges that use of all pesticides is based on the balance between the desired effect on food production and the inevitable risk of collateral damage to non-target species and the environment. However, for neonicotinoids, scientific evidence accumulated over the last two years suggests that, rather than balance, there in imbalance —  the risk of collateral damage is too high when compared to the benefits. Peter Neumann, EASAC’s Chair of the Working Group, wrote in an article published in the journal Nature that the...

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Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health
May04

Clean Air: The Effects of U.S. Power Plant Carbon Standards on Human Health

By Roberta Attanasio A little more than a year ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that in 2012 around 7 million people died — accounting for one in eight of total global deaths — as a result of exposure to air pollution. These estimates more than doubled the previous ones, and confirmed that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The WHO concluded that reducing air pollution globally could save millions of lives. But, what policy changes would be most effective at saving lives? The answer comes from a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change (May 4, 2015.) The study, (US power plant carbon standards and clean air and health co-benefits), was based on data from the Census Bureau as well as detailed maps of the more than 2,400 fossil-fuel-fired power plants operating across the U.S. It outlines how changes in carbon dioxide emissions could lead to considerable health benefits for the U.S population. According to the WHO, the diseases caused by air pollution include ischemic heart disease (40%), stroke (40%), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (11%), lung cancer (6%), and acute lower respiratory infections in children (3%). For the new study, the researchers analyzed three possible policy options for power plant carbon standards. The policy option leading to the biggest health benefits was the one that included changes proposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on June 2, 2014, in the Clean Power Plan. Modeling analysis indicated that this option could prevent an expected 3,500 premature deaths in the U.S. every year, and avert more than a thousand heart attacks and hospitalizations annually from air pollution-related illness. Thus, according to the study, the formula presented in the draft Clean Power Plan is on the right track to provide large health benefits, and these health benefits depend entirely on critical policy choices that will be made by the EPA in the final Clean Power Plan expected in July. The Plan is the nation’s first attempt to establish standards for carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. It is also viewed as an important signal of U.S. leadership in the run-up to international climate negotiations in Paris in December. Jonathan Buonocore, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “If EPA sets strong carbon standards, we can expect large public health benefits from cleaner air almost immediately after the standards are implemented.” Power plants are the nation’s largest source of carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change. However, they release not only carbon dioxide, but also other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter — precursors to smog and...

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Global Threats: Contamination of Surface Waters by Agricultural Insecticides
Apr26

Global Threats: Contamination of Surface Waters by Agricultural Insecticides

By Roberta Attanasio The use of agricultural insecticides — toxic substances developed to target and kill insects that damage crops — has sparked controversy since the dawn of the “chemical age”, which started in the 1950s. The benefits of agricultural insecticides — for example, increased food production — are undeniable. Unfortunately, along with benefits, there are considerable unwanted effects. Ideally, insecticides must be lethal to the target insects, but not to non-target species. However, these toxic substances do not target only insects — they target many more organisms, including man. Thus, the toxic brew of agricultural insecticides threatens the ecological integrity of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Indeed, agricultural systems play a significant role in global environmental degradation — among other harmful effects, they drive the loss of aquatic biodiversity. In 2013, a team of researchers from German and Australian institutions showed that the loss of aquatic biodiversity in regions of Germany, France, and Australia, is primarily due to the disappearance of several groups of species — stoneflies, mayflies, caddisflies, and dragonflies — which are especially susceptible to insecticides. These insects are important members of the food chain right up to fish and birds. Despite these worrisome results, the degree of insecticide contamination worldwide was unknown until two weeks ago, when results from a new study (Agricultural insecticides threaten surface waters at the global scale) showed that surface water pollution resulting from the current use of agricultural insecticides constitutes an excessive threat to aquatic biodiversity. For the new study, researchers at the Institute for Environmental Science of the University of Koblenz-Landau evaluated, for the first time, comprehensive global insecticide contamination data for agricultural surface waters. They examined 838 studies conducted between 1962 and 2012 and covering 2,500 aquatic sites in 73 countries, using the legally-accepted regulatory threshold levels (RTLs) as defined during the official pesticide authorization procedures. The researchers found that insecticide contamination occurs rarely in the aquatic environment — only an estimated 2.6% of the samples contained measurable levels of insecticides. However, for the sites containing insecticides, the results were alarming — more than 40% of the water-phase samples, and more than 80% of sediment samples in which insecticides were detected, yielded concentrations that exceeded the respective RTLs. They concluded that insecticides pose substantial threats to the biodiversity of global agricultural surface waters and that the current regulatory risk assessment schemes and pesticide authorization procedures fail to protect the aquatic environment. Ralf Schulz, one of the researchers, said in a press release: “Potential reasons for these findings are failures of current risk assessment procedures, or the non-adherence of farmers to pesticide application prescriptions.” It is likely that the global picture emerging from the...

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