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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Global Pollution: Top Ten Toxic Threats in 2013
Nov05

Global Pollution: Top Ten Toxic Threats in 2013

By The Editors A report released in 2012 by the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland pointed out that the disease burden of pollution is comparable in scope to that of more well-known public health threats, such as malaria or tuberculosis. The burden of disease measures the relative impact of different diseases and injuries on populations. As comparison, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), globally, there were about 219 million cases of malaria in 2010 and an estimated 660 000 deaths due to the disease, whereas in 2012 an estimated 8.6 million people developed tuberculosis and 1.3 million died from it. Yesterday (November 4, 2013), the Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland published the 2013 report of the world’s worst polluted places. The report is based on data from industry information, public sources, and the scientific literature. This is the first list of polluted sites released by the two groups since 2007. Richard Fuller, president of Blacksmith Institute, says “In this year’s report, we cite some of the most polluted places we’ve encountered. But it is important to point out that the problem is really much larger than these ten sites. We estimate that the health of more than 200 million people is at risk from pollution in the developing world.” The report states that “Even though toxic pollution remains a far less well-known problem, it is believed to have a similar impact on death and disability in developing countries as many well-known and well-funded diseases. This year’s report demonstrates this increased understanding of the problem and how much progress has been made in the past several years. It also demonstrates how much further there is to go.” The health effects of toxic pollution are complex and are as varied as the types of pollution and the possible combinations of different types of pollution. For example, it is currently estimated that nearly one-fifth of the cancer incidence globally is due to environmental exposures. This number is disproportionately higher in developing countries. Below is the list of the world’s worst polluted places in 2013 (unranked): Agbobloshie, Ghana; Chernobyl, Ukraine; Citarum River, Indonesia; Dzershinsk, Russia; Hazaribagh, Bangladesh; Kabwe, Zambia; Kalimantan, Indonesia; Matanza Riachuelo, Argentina; Niger River Delta, Nigeria; Norilsk, Russia. “In this year’s report, we cite some of the most polluted places we’ve encountered. But it is important to point out that the problem is really much larger than these ten sites,” says Richard Fuller, president of Blacksmith Institute. “We estimate that the health of more than 200 million people is at risk from pollution in the developing world.” The report, entitled “The Top Ten Toxic Threats: Cleanup, Progress, and Ongoing Challenges“, presents and explores some simple and cost-effective solutions to remediate the major sources of toxic pollutants and reduce the risk...

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Arsenic in Drinking Water: Increased Risk of Respiratory Infections and Lung Damage Following Fetal Exposure
Sep29

Arsenic in Drinking Water: Increased Risk of Respiratory Infections and Lung Damage Following Fetal Exposure

By Roberta Attanasio Odorless and tasteless, arsenic lurks everywhere – in rice and in chicken breasts, in apple juice and in drinking water. It’s all around, but not in amounts sufficient to cause acute (short-term) poisoning. On the other hand, chronic (long-term) exposure to lower arsenic doses occurs way too often, and may lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancers and other human disorders. Contamination of drinking water by arsenic is a global health threat. Presence of arsenic in groundwater is largely the result of minerals dissolving from weathered rocks and soils. In addition, arsenic enters the drinking water supply because of runoff from orchards, electronics production waste or other industrial activities. Bangladesh is considered a hot-spot for groundwater contamination with arsenic – however, the water supply is contaminated in many regions all around the world. Results from a study recently published in the journal Science (August 2013) indicate that in China 19.6 million people are at risk of being affected by the consumption of arsenic-contaminated groundwater.   Widespread high concentrations of arsenic are present in the groundwater of several areas of the U.S., including the West, the Midwest, parts of Texas, and the Northeast. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) develops maps that show where and to what extent arsenic occurs in groundwater across the country – The current maps are based on samples from 31,350 wells. Chronic exposure to arsenic through drinking water is linked to respiratory diseases. Arsenic affects the function of the immune system as well as lung development and causes increased susceptibility to respiratory infections. Results from a study carried out in Bangladesh and published in August in the journal American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine show that arsenic induces lung damage similar to the damage induced by decades of tobacco smoking. The results also show that, especially in males, tobacco smoking makes arsenic-related damage even worse. “Restrictive lung defects, such as we saw in those exposed to well-water arsenic, are usually progressive and irreversible,” said Habibul Ahsan, Director of the Center for Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention at the University of Chicago Medicine and lead author of the study. “They can lead over time to serious lung disease.” As for many other pollutants, a major concern is prenatal exposure, which may lead to adverse health effects later on in life. Results from studies carried out in animal models suggest that arsenic exposure during adult and fetal life is linked to development of respiratory infections. In 2009, Courtney Kozul and collaborators published a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives showing that, in adult mice, arsenic exposure through drinking water significantly compromises the immune response to infection...

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Toxic Hot Spots: A Global Health Threat
May11

Toxic Hot Spots: A Global Health Threat

By The Editors Toxic Hot Spots are areas where the concentration of toxic substances, which may be present in water, soil or air, is significantly higher than background levels. In these areas, the risk of adverse health effects is elevated. Toxic hot spots are often located in the vicinity of landfills, car battery recycling sites, sewage treatment plants, refineries, tanneries, mines, and numerous other operations.  Living nearby these sites may cause serious adverse affects, as for example cancer and retardation in children.. We usually think of infectious diseases as the major global health problem.  However, a new study by Kevin Chatham-Stephens and collaborators, published this month in Environmental Health Perspectives, shows that living near a toxic hot spot may lead to a higher health threat than some of the most dangerous infectious diseases worldwide, such as malaria and tuberculosis. The study focuses on three countries, India, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  The researchers estimate that more than eight million persons in these countries suffered disease, disability, or death resulting from exposures to industrial contaminants in 2010. The toxic substances causing the majority of negative health effects are lead and hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. The researchers conclude that “toxic waste sites are a major, and heretofore under-recognized, global health problem.” The study results confirm the findings of the 2012 World’s Worst Pollution Problems report, which clearly shows the large extent of the global health impact of pollution. The image below (from the University of Hedelberg) is a global map showing pollution hotspots around the world.  In this case, the hotspots were located in 2004 through detection of nitrogen dioxide, which is released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels by power plants, heavy industry and vehicles....

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