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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Global Threats: Children’s Exposure to Toxic Pesticides
May17

Global Threats: Children’s Exposure to Toxic Pesticides

By Roberta Attanasio In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a policy statement to outline the harmful effects of pesticides in children, and to make recommendations on how to reduce exposure. According to the statement, prenatal and early childhood exposure to pesticides is associated with pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems. In addition, the statement pointed out that recognizing and reducing children’s exposure to pesticides requires improved medical training, public health tracking, and regulatory approaches, and made recommendations on specific actions that should be taken to decrease such exposure. Despite the recognition of the dangers associated with pesticide use, and the AAP recommendations on limiting children’s exposure, not much has been done since 2012 — indeed, it’s likely going to get worse before it gets better. The AAP recommended that pediatricians should ask parents about pesticide use around the home and yard, offer guidance about safe storage, and recommend parents choose lowest-harm approaches when considering pest control. Are pediatricians following these recommendations? At this time, let’s say this is an open-ended question — although we may guess what the correct answer is. Let’s now move from the local (the American Academy of Pediatrics – AAP) to the global (the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations – FAO). According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), nearly 100 million boys and girls between 5 and 17 years old are engaged in child labor in agriculture. Many are directly exposed to toxic chemicals while working on the farm — however, children are also exposed when they help with family chores or play, and through the food they eat and the water they drink. Exposure can result in acute poisoning and sickness immediately after contact. But often, it also has longer-term, chronic impacts on their health and development. Children are particularly vulnerable to pesticide exposure for various biological and behavioral reasons. They breathe in more air than adults and so take in more dust, toxic vapors, and droplets of spray. Relative to their body weight, children need to eat and drink more than adults, and if food is contaminated, they absorb more toxins. The surface area of a child’s skin per unit of body mass is greater than that of an adult, and their skin is more delicate. All these factors can lead to greater absorption of chemicals, and children’s organs are less able to detoxify pesticides because they are not yet fully developed. Now, recognizing that education is crucial to limit exposure to pesticides (as stated by the AAP in 2012), FAO and ILO extension workers in Africa and elsewhere are engaging with rural communities to reduce...

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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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