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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Salmon Farming: The Chilean Massive Die-Off
May21

Salmon Farming: The Chilean Massive Die-Off

By Roberta Attanasio Salmon farming—the fastest growing food production system in the world—is going through hard times in Chile, the world’s second-largest salmon producer after Norway. Last year, Chile exported $4.5 billion of farmed salmon, but now a deadly algal bloom is killing millions of farmed fish. A few months ago, an estimated 40,000 tons of salmon died in the Los Lagos region, which is known as the Switzerland of the Southern Hemisphere’s—the snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains tower over deep mountain lakes and green farming valleys, creating a fairy-tale landscape. Unlike Switzerland, the fairy-tale landscape extends down to the coast and its beaches, which became covered with dead sea creatures. “Heaps of dead whales, salmon and sardines blamed on the El Niño weather phenomenon have clogged Chile’s Pacific beaches.” El Niño, which warms the equatorial Pacific, is certainly one of the factors to blame in the massive fish die-off. The warm water encourages the growth of toxic algae, which cause the so-called red tide—an algal bloom that turns the seawater red and makes seafood toxic. Although the red tide is a common, naturally recurring phenomenon in southern Chile, the extent of the current outbreak is unprecedented, so much so that it has been defined “one of the country’s worst recent environmental crises.” The toxic algal bloom threatens the local marine life as well as the livelihood of the fishermen who depend on it. But, El Niño is only one of the factors responsible for the red tide. Liesbeth van der Meer, who heads the Oceana environmental group in Chile, believes that runoff from neighboring livestock creates concentrations of nitrogen that, when mixed with the above-normal temperatures, lead to the ideal scenario for the algae to grow. Another factor appears to be the salmon farming itself, which encourages toxic algal blooms. How? Nutrients dumped into floating salmon cages fall to the seabed forming underwater banks that act as a toxic algae reservoir. Marine biologist Hector Kol told The Guardian: “The problem we now have is a red tide of biblical proportions. Chiloé has changed, the sea is toxic. Right now we have a red tide with symptoms of diarrhoea, amnesia and paralysis from near the Straits of Magellan to Valdivia”—in other words, the phenomenon involves a stretch of more than 1,200 miles of coastline. In addition, residents accuse salmon producers of exacerbating the algal bloom by dumping contaminated fish near the coast—millions of salmon died earlier this year due to another algal bloom that asphyxiated fish by decreasing oxygen in the water. Now, according to the Chilean government, scientists will determine whether or not dumping tons of rotting...

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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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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: 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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