By Kristin FalzonHealth  03:21PM EST
Scientists Are Freaking Out Over This 25-Year-Old's Solution to Superbugs

After three years of research, a Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne may have discovered a way to kill superbugs without the use of antibiotics.

Shu Lam believes that she has found the key to averting a health crisis so severe that the United Nations recently declared it a "fundamental threat" to global health.

Shu Lam

Antibiotic-resistant superbugs kill about 170,000 people a year and, according to a British study, are estimated to kill up to 10 million people a year by 2050 and cost the world economy $100 trillion.

"If we fail to address this problem quickly and comprehensively, antimicrobial resistance will make providing high-quality universal healthcare coverage more difficult if not impossible," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told The Guardian. "It will undermine sustainable food production. And it will put the sustainable development goals in jeopardy."

In what is being hailed by scientists in the field as "a breakthrough that could change the face of modern medicine," Lam and her team developed a star-shaped peptide polymer that targets the resistant superbugs, rips apart their cell walls and kills them.

"These star polymers screw up the way bacteria survives," Lam told VICE. "Bacteria need to divide and grow but when our star is attached to the membrane it interferes with these processes. This puts a lot of stress on the bacteria and it initiates a process to kill itself from stress."

A bacterium cell before (left) and after being treated by the star-shaped polymers. University of Melbourne

Lam told The Telegraph the polymers have been effective in treating mice infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and are relatively non-toxic to the healthy cells in the body. The reduction in toxicity is because of the larger size of the polymers which make them too big to enter healthy cells.

Lam's findings were recently published in the Nature Microbiology journal and while the results are promising in the lab and on mice, she said there is still a long way to go.

"We still need to do a lot of studies and a lot of tests—for example, to see whether these polymers have any side effects on our bodies," she explained to Vice. "We need a lot of detailed assessments like that, [but] they could hopefully be implemented in the near future."

Professor Greg Qiao, her Ph.D. supervisor, told The Telegraph they will need at least five more years to fully develop her project unless millions of dollars are invested into speeding up the process.

However, "The really good news about this is that, at the moment, if you have a superbug and you run out of antibiotics, there's not much you can do. At least you can do something now," he said.

So what would the star polymer treatment look like in the future? As Lam explained in an interview with VICE:

"The quickest way to make this available to the public is through topical application, simply because you go through less procedures as opposed to ingesting these molecules into the body. So when you have a wound or a bacterial infection on the wound then you [generally] apply some sort of antibacterial cream.

"The star polymers could potentially become one of the anti-bacterial ingredients in this cream. Ultimately, we hope that what we're discovering here could replace antibiotics. In other words, we also hope that we will be able to inject this into the body to treat serious infections, or even to disperse it in the form of a pill which patients can take, just like somebody would take an antibiotic."

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By Dan ZukowskiClimate  03:07PM EST
Dutch Parliament Votes to Shut Down All Coal Plants

As President Obama's signature Clean Power Plan heads to court, the Dutch parliament voted Thursday to shut down its entire coal industry. The move is needed in order for the country to meet its 2030 goal to reduce carbon emissions by 55 percent.

Dutch parliament building in The Hague.Markus Bernet, Wikimedia

The action would put the Netherlands in position to achieve the goals of the Paris climate agreement. The 77 to 72 vote, while non-binding, comes on the heels of a recent confidential study, leaked to the Dutch newspaper Trouw, that one or more plants would have to be closed. The country has five coal plants currently in operation, including three that just came online last year. A recent five percent increase in emissions has been linked to its newest plants.

An overwhelmed Urgenda lawyer Cox after winning the historic Dutch climate case.Urgenda / Chantal Bekker

In June, 2015, a court in The Hague ordered the Dutch government to cut its emissions by 25 percent within five years. The unprecedented ruling came in a case brought by the Dutch Urgenda Foundation. In a transcript from the reading of the verdict, the court said: "The state must do more to avert the imminent danger caused by climate change, also in view of its duty of care to protect and improve the living environment." The government has appealed the ruling.

In the leaked document, the consulting firm CE Delft said that the Dutch government would need to quickly close one or two power plants to meet the court's order. They concluded that closing the plants would impose lower costs to society than other alternatives to achieve the court-imposed emissions target. The report estimated that the average household would save 80 Euros ($90 at current exchange rates) a year, against costs of 30 Euros ($34). The Dutch economic ministry estimated that the cost of closing all the country's coal plants by 2020 would total 7 billion Euros ($7.9 billion).

Last year, five older coal-fired plants were decommissioned. Some environmentalists think that a coalition agreement could keep some or all of the three newer plants open. The issue has been contentious and is likely to affect next year's Dutch elections. The right-wing, populist Freedom Party, which may block the parliament's plan, currently leads many opinion polls.

Inhabitat

In the U.S., 94 coal plants were shut down last year, with another 41 expected to the shuttered in 2016. Aging plants and cheap natural gas are driving the transition from coal, even as 26 states are suing the federal government to overturn the Clean Power Plan. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit will hear oral arguments Sept. 27.

Even if the Clean Power Plan survives this challenge, a study published today in Nature Climate Change says that the U.S. will miss its 2025 carbon emissions target by a wide amount, as much as 1.5 billion metric tons per year. Nevertheless, "The study underscores the importance of EPA's Clean Power Plan for meeting the climate change promises," wrote Science this morning.

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By Lorraine ChowClimate  01:44PM EST
Toxic Algae Blooms Set Historic Records From Coast to Coast

Toxic algal blooms aren't just a problem in Florida. They've popped up in more than 20 states, with ongoing blooms choking waterways and aquatic life from California to the Chesapeake Bay.

Cyanobacteria bloom at Clear Lake, Lake County, California, resulted in oxygen depletion in the water and the subsequent mortality of multiple aquatic species, including carp, catfish, bluegill and crappie. Kirsten Macintyre, California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Associated Press reported that algal blooms have been detected in more than 40 of the California's bodies of water—the highest number in state history. The blue-green cyanobacterium's growth has been fueled by record-breaking heat and a historic drought.

"Warm temperatures, increased nutrients, and low water flows aggravated by drought conditions and climate change are favoring toxin-producing cyanobacteria and algae; and a number of lakes, reservoirs and river systems are suffering blooms as a result," the California State Water Resources Control Board announced last month.

As the Sacrameto Bee described, this green muck has been spotted across the Golden State:

"Since July, officials have issued notices about potentially toxic blue-green algae in the Klamath River near the Oregon border; along an arm of the state's largest reservoir, Shasta Lake; and at Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County. They've attributed the deaths of thousands of fish along a section of Clear Lake to toxic blooms. Blue-green algae also has formed in parts of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, prompting health warnings about green, malodorous water in Discovery Bay and Stockton."

Beverley Anderson-Abbs, an environmental scientist with the State Water Board, told AccuWeather that blooms are usually seasonal, "However, these seasons have been getting longer over the past few years as winters have been relatively warm and water, especially in smaller lakes, has been warming earlier in the year and staying warm later."

"It is very possible that this could get worse in the future as temperatures continue to increase and the possibility of future droughts along with that," Anderson-Ebbs said.

Harmful algal blooms can produce toxins that can cause serious illness in people. Wade Hensley, a resident of Discovery Bay, California was hospitalized after microcystin poisoning, a byproduct of algae. According to NPR, his body went numb from the waist down.

The California Department of Public Health states that algae exposure can cause rashes, skin and eye irritation, allergic reactions and other health effects but at high levels, "exposure can result in serious illness or death."

Over on the East Coast, the Chesapeake Bay and waterways beyond are seeing bigger and longer lasting algal blooms. The Daily Press reported that a strain of algae called Alexandrium monilatum has spread from Virginia Beach to the James, York and Rappahannock rivers to the Eastern Shore—even as far north as the Potomac River.

The report states that this year's bloom is still going strong even though it usually disappears by early to mid-September. Researchers are now trying to understand if Alexandrium has an impact on marine life. Currently, it does not appear to be harmful to humans.

"So the guidance is you should probably avoid it," Virginia Department of Health's marine science supervisor Todd Egerton told the Daily Press. "But, for the most part, people haven't reported any issues with it."

A number of other drivers can spur algae growth, from warming water to excess nitrogen and phosphorus runoff. Algal blooms have been known to strip oxygen from the water, creating a "dead zone" that threatens fish and other marine life.

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By Lorraine ChowClimate  12:20PM EST
Boycott Launched After Nestlé Outbids Drought-Stricken Town to Buy Well for Bottled Water

Nestlé's grab of a Canadian community's water supply has sparked international outrage and calls to boycott the company and bottled water. More than 150,000 Facebook users are talking about the news on the social media site.

The Council of Canadians is calling on people to sign a declaration on its website to boycott bottled water and Nestlé.

Nestlé Waters Canada, a bottled water operation of the multinational food and drink giant, outbid the Township of Central Wellington in Ontario for water rights to a local well to ensure "future business growth."

The company is already permitted to pull up to 3.6 million liters (roughly 951,000 gallons) of water a day for its bottling operations in nearby Aberfoyle, but decided to swoop up the well near Elora, Ontario in order "to supplement our operations in Aberfoyle."

According the Globe and Mail, the company bought the well from Middlebrook Water Company last month after having made a conditional offer in 2015.

The reason this issue has blown up is because the Township of Centre Wellington wanted to buy the spring water well for itself in order to safeguard the drinking water supply the growing community, mayor Kelly Linton explained to The Guardian.

The township has a population of about 30,000 but "by 2041, we'll be closer to 50,000 so protecting our water sources is critical to us," he said.

Not only that, much of the province of Ontario is experiencing record drought conditions, with rainfall 100 millimeters below normal in some areas from April to June, the National Post reported in July.

A drought intensity map released by Agriculture Canada on June 17, showing "moderate drought" across eastern Ontario.Agriculture Canada

According to The Guardian, when township authorities learned that Nestlé was trying to buy the well, they scrambled over the summer to come up with a counter-offer.

"We put in more money than they did and we removed all conditions," Linton said. The amount has not been specified.

But Nestlé, which had right of first refusal, was able to match the township's offer and won the well for itself.

"As you can appreciate we aren't going to be outbidding Nestlé," Linton said. "As a small town we're using taxpayer dollars, so we have to be good stewards of that."

Nestlé was reportedly unaware of the township's counter-offer until after the purchase was made. Since securing the well, the company said it has submitted an application to the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change to conduct an aquifer pump test to determine if the water source meets the company's internal requirements "as well as ensure it can be operated in a sustainable manner." If the source at the Middlebrook well site meets Nestlé's requirements, the company will seek a permit that allows it to draw water at 300 gallons a minute, Nestlé said.

However, Wellington Water Watchers, a local volunteer group, plans to block the company's plans.

"We are fighting tooth and nail to not allow that pump test to go ahead," Mike Nagy of the group told The Guardian.

The Wellington Water Watchers pointed out in a Facebook post that Nestlé's latest move will vastly increase plastic pollution due to the wastefulness of bottled water.

"Think about the plastic we will stop being produced by saying NO to the Nestle permit renewals and the recent purchase of the Middlebrook Well. 6.4 million liters a day would translate into 12 million plastic packages per day! This is how much water they would have access to if they get the permit in Elora Centre Wellington as they already have 4.7 million liters day. Use the 4th R, REFUSE."

The Council of Canadians is also urging a national boycott of Nestlé. A media release for the boycott states:

"This summer, while many parts of southern Ontario faced drought conditions, Nestlé continued to pump more than 4 million litres of groundwater every day from an aquifer near Guelph. Nestlé pays less than $15 per day for this water, which it then ships out in hundreds of millions of single-use plastic bottles for sale all over North America."

"The water crisis is at our door here in Canada," Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow said. "Groundwater resources are finite and are currently taxed by droughts, climate change and over-extraction. At this pace, we will not have enough for our future needs. Wasting our limited groundwater on frivolous and consumptive uses such as bottled water is a recipe for disaster. We must safeguard groundwater reserves for communities and future generations."

Additionally, as Barlow told the Canadian Press, the new Elora well is located near a First Nation's reserve, potentially putting their water supply at risk.

"[The well] sits on the traditional territory of the Six Nations of the Grand River, 11,000 of whom do not have access to clean running water," Barlow said.

Nestlé's has been making many recent headlines over its bottling operations. Last week, EcoWatch reported that the Swiss conglomerate is now legally permitted to take water from the San Bernardino National Forest in California on a permit that expired back in 1988.

A federal judge ruled that the corporation can continue its use of a 4-mile pipeline that siphons thousands of gallons of public water a day from the Strawberry Creek watershed and sell it back to the public as bottled water. The water is sold under the Arrowhead brand.

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By Dan ZukowskiClimate  10:48AM EST
Bad News for Lobster Lovers

The lobster industry in Maine is riding the crest of record prices and a record catch last year. This year, exports of the state's signature shellfish more than doubled last year's sales. But a new study from the University of Maine's Darling Marine Center and the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science found that baby lobsters won't survive in warmer waters.

Warming waters in the Gulf of Maine threaten American lobster fisheries.Dan Zukowski

Southern New England lobster fisheries have already collapsed. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reports that over the past 10 years, the Gulf of Maine has warmed 99 percent faster than any other sea in the world. As a result, cod have virtually disappeared from the region. Lobster, like cod, are a cold water species.

A new study, published today in the ICES Journal of Marine Science, details the effect of warmer waters on the larval development of American lobsters. They found that when the water was 5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than currently found in the Gulf of Maine, these baby lobsters "experienced significantly lower survival." Five degrees is how much the the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects the Gulf of Maine's temperature will warm by the end of the century.

Export markets for Maine lobster have grown dramatically.Credit: Portland Press-Herald

Maine's waters have long yielded large amounts of high-quality lobster. But as southern New England lobsters went into decline, the industry in northern New England flourished. The lobster population in the Gulf of Maine doubled in the past 20 years. In 2015, Maine lobstermen landed a record $495.4 million, or 121.1 million pounds.

Demand from China and other Asian markets is driving growing exports, which reached $103 million in the first half of 2016. From 2010 to 2015, shipments to China rose from just $100,000 to $20 million. But the waters that produce this bounty are at risk.

Dan Zukowski

The bounty that fed Native Americans for 11,000 years and early European colonizers derives from a unique geography. The Gulf of Maine is bounded on the southeast by Georges Bank and Browns Bank, creating an almost enclosed sea. From the northwest, it's fed by nutrient-rich cold waters of 25 river systems that drain 250 billion gallons of water per year into the gulf. At the head of the gulf, tides rise and fall 50 feet in the Bay of Fundy. Cod, herring, salmon and lobster thrive in this environment.

"Warm-water invaders are gaining a toehold, and those that already had one are taking over," reported the Portland Press-Herald in a special series published in 2015. In recent years, changes in the Gulf Stream have allowed more warm water to invade the Gulf of Maine. There has been a slow but steady progression north for the best lobster grounds. In the 1970s, it was in Casco Bay, outside Portland, but today it is some 80 miles north in Penobscot Bay.

Now, warm-water species are appearing off the shores of Maine. Squid, sea bass, green crabs and Asian shore crabs are among the invasive species. They've destroyed eelgrass and created ecological impacts that have yet to be determined. The University of Maine study showed that baby lobsters grow faster in warmer waters but don't survive as well. That could mean that Maine's lobsters will migrate north in search of colder Canadian waters.

"Ask any commercial fisherman here about climate change, and he'll tell you that it's wreaking havoc," the operations supervisor at the Portland Fish Exchange told me this summer. Now, researchers know why.

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By Food & Water WatchEnergy  10:15AM EST
EPA Must 'Correct Top Claim in Major Fracking Study'

Led by Food & Water Watch, more than 200 public interest and environmental groups sent a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today, urging the agency to heed the recommendation of its own independent Science Advisory Board (SAB) and clarify the seemingly unsupported top-line finding of the June 2015 draft fracking report.

The EPA's June 2015 draft of the study featured a dismissive and unsupported topline finding—that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic" problems nationally, as if that should be the bar. The groups back the SAB's recommendation that the EPA either drop the controversial language or provide a "quantitative analysis" to support it.

The letter, signed by hundreds of national, statewide and local environmental and public interest groups, representing millions of members, was sent directly to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. It is being sent on the heels of an EnergyWire FOIA report indicating that the Obama White House was engaged in the "messaging" for the rollout of the controversial EPA study, stating that "White House aides kept tabs on what the 'topline messages' would be."

In the letter, environmental groups specifically call on the EPA to revisit its statement of findings, consistent with the SAB recommendations, and resolve the three major problems with the controversial line:

1. The EPA did not provide a sense of what the agency would have considered "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States."

2. The "widespread, systemic" line is problematic because it presumes, without discussion, that looking on a national scale, over several years, provides an appropriate metric for evaluating the significance of known impacts.

3. The "widespread, systemic" line is problematic because the EPA failed to explain adequately the impediments to arriving at quantitative estimates for the frequencies and severities of the impacts already occurring.

The letter continues:

"By dismissing fracking's impacts on drinking water resources as not 'widespread, systemic,' the EPA seriously misrepresented the findings of its underlying study. This has done the public a disservice. We feel the agency now owes it to the public—and particularly to those already impacted by 'hydraulic fracturing activities'—to address these criticisms."

Other organizations that signed today's letter include: Sierra Club, Indigenous Environmental Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Greenpeace, Earthjustice, League of Conservation Voters, Union of Concerned Scientists, Friends of the Earth, 350.org and Clean Water Action.

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By Climate NexusClimate  07:36AM EST
Memo to Debate Moderators: You 'Owe It to Future Generations' to Talk About Climate Change

With more than 100 million Americans expected to watch the first presidential debate tonight, there are growing calls to question the candidates' stance on climate change.

Lester Holt "owes it to future generations" to talk about climate change this campaign season, wrote John Sutter of CNN. Shawn Otto, chairman of ScienceDebate.org, said climate change is the most urgent science question to ask during the debate. The issue also figured prominently in recent polls by the Washington Post and New York Times regarding questions the readers would like to ask the candidates.

"Tonight's debate offers a rare chance for America to hear from both candidates about the urgent issues facing this country, so it is vital for Lester Holt to press Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on their plans to deal with the threat of climate change," Greenpeace USA Executive Director Annie Leonard said.

"People all over this country are already dealing with the impacts of climate change, and so during the first presidential debate of 2016, Americans deserve to hear what our two Presidential candidates plan to do about it. Because of the low bar that Donald Trump has set for discussing actual policy during this election, it is up to the debate moderators to demand the candidates take climate change as seriously as the rest of the country does. The American people will not tolerate a reality show in place of what should be a real political discussion. Lester Holt is a serious journalist. He should act like one tonight."

Dashboard 1

For a deeper dive:

CNN, John D Sutter column; Newsweek, Shawn Otto interview; Grist, Emma Foehringer Merchant column; Business Insider, Rebecca Harrington analysis; Columbus Dispatch, Jessica Wehrman analysis; Las Vegas Review-Journal, Ben Botkin analysis; Buzzfeed, Dino Grandoni analysis

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for daily Hot News.

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By Climate News NetworkEnergy  09:29AM EST
This Fabric Can Power Your Phone

Scientists in the U.S. and China have fashioned the ultimate in power dressing: a fabric that recovers energy from movement and at the same time turns sunlight into electricity.

A bracelet made from fabric woven with special energy-harvesting strands that collect electricity from the sun and motion.Georgia Institute of Technology

It may be a while before the new material reaches the high street stores and delivers significant energy savings, but it means that a smartphone in a pocket could charge itself from the fabric around it.

And it stands as yet another example of the burst of global ingenuity by materials scientists and engineers in response to the spectrum of climate change driven by rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers have already tested a "bionic leaf" that can harvest sunlight energy 10 times more efficiently than chlorophyll-powered foliage.

Carbon Emissions

They have crafted windows and solar panels from wood, tested a "carbon negative" car battery that replaces its cathode material from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and confected a brew of conifer essence and gut bacteria to make high-octane rocket fuel.

They have even devised an ultra-thin membrane that could capture nine-tenths of the carbon dioxide emissions from coal-burning power stations.

But the latest report from the laboratories—published in Nature Energy journal—could end up being tested in the field, as a tent fabric, or in the office, as curtains that could power a lighting system or as clothing that could exploit the wearer's activity and place in the sun.

The scientists used commercially-available machinery to weave together solar cells fashioned from lightweight polymer fibers with a second and very different thread of fibre-based nanogenerators that exploit the tribo-electric effect: that is, threads that could recover electrical power from any form of movement—rotation, sliding or vibration.

"This hybrid power textile device presents a novel solution to charging devices in the field, from something as simple as the wind blowing on a sunny day," professor Zhong Lin Wang, specialist in nanomaterials synthesis at Georgia Tech School of Materials Science and Engineering, said.

A piece of fabric woven with special strands of material that harvest electricity from the sun and motion.Georgia Institute of Technology

Highly Flexible

The new fabric is 320 millionths of a meter thick, woven together with strands of wool. It is, Professor Wang said, "highly flexible, breathable, lightweight and adaptable to a range of uses."

The energy-harvesting textile is based on common polymer materials that, he said, are not expensive to make and are environmentally friendly. The electrodes are also delivered by a low-cost process, so large-scale manufacture should be possible.

The scientists report that a 4 centimeter by 5 centimeter fragment of the hybrid power textile is capable of stably delivering output power of 0.5 milliwatts, and has been shown to charge a commercial capacitor up to two volts in one minute in ambient sunlight while being mechanically moved.

"The textile could continuously power an electronic watch, directly charge a cell phone, or drive water-splitting reactions," the authors, from Georgia Tech and from Chongqing University and Beijing Institute of Nanoenergy and Nanosystems in China, said.

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By Climate News NetworkClimate  08:49AM EST
No Safe Haven for Polar Bears in Warming Arctic

By Tim Radford

The world of the polar bear is shrinking—everywhere. New research by scientists in the U.S. confirms that each of the 19 known populations of Ursus maritimus is increasingly affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring, and the later arrival of ice every autumn.

Polar bears are affected by the earlier sea ice melt in the Arctic spring.Alamy

The finding is hardly a shock, as there have been warnings from conservationists about such things for years, with the polar bear becoming an icon of climate change concerns. And in most cases of species threat there are winners as well as losers.

But the latest study—published in the The Cryosphere, a journal of theEuropean Geosciences Union—confirms that there are no winners. The ice is in retreat for all polar bear populations.

The 25,000 or so surviving Arctic bears rely on the ice for their feeding and breeding success. A few stay on the ice all year round, but southerly populations survive ashore in the summer, and it is the seasonal winter feast upon seals and other sea mammals that gives them the nourishment to make it to the next breeding season.

Arctic Concentrations

"Sea ice really is their platform for life," said Kristin Laidre, principal scientist at the University of Washington's Polar Science Centre (PSC). "They are capable of existing on land for part of the year, but the sea ice is where they obtain their main prey."

She and her co-author, Harry Stern, principal mathematician at the PSC, used 35 years of satellite data to examine sea ice concentrations around the entire Arctic.

The total number of ice-covered days fell at the rate of seven to 19 days per decade between 1979 and 2014. Sea ice in the summer months—when polar bears are often forced to fast on land—also declined in all regions, by between 1 percent and 9 percent per decade.

And they found that the trend towards an earlier spring melt and a later autumn freeze was consistent everywhere.

Dr. Laidre and other scientists reported last year that all Arctic marine mammals could be at risk because of habitat loss. The catch was that biologists did not know enough about them to be sure.

Spring Melt

Another group of researchers has established that things look bleak for Canada's polar bears, but this is just a subset of the species.

The PSC scientists have now established that spring melt has begun on average three to nine days earlier per decade, and the freeze similarly later each decade. Effectively, that added up to seven weeks' total loss of good habitat—that is, firm ice upon which the bears can stalk seals.

"These spring and fall transitions bound the period when there is good ice habitat available for bears to feed," Dr Laidre said. "Those periods are also tied to the breeding season, when bears find mates, and when females come out of their maternity dens with very small cubs and haven't eaten for months.

"We expect that if the trends continue, compared with today, polar bears will experience another six to seven weeks of ice-free periods by mid-century."

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By AlterNetHealth  09:23AM EST
Can You Guess What’s 11,000 Times Dirtier Than a Toilet Seat?

By Larry Schwartz

America is a gas-guzzling, car-obsessed, open-road nation. Few things appeal to Americans more than a (traffic-free, ideally) leisurely drive to a fun, kick-back-your-heels destination, all the while enjoying the passing scenery. Of course, in order to achieve this bucolic vision of paradise, we need to fuel up the car, and in order to do that, we have to stop at the gas station. A study by Kimberly-Clark in 2015 investigating bacterial hot spots in the workplace fingered gas pumps as one of the unhealthiest things you can handle, and a new survey recently corroborates those findings.

Admittedly, it's probably no great surprise that gas pumps are not exactly pristine. Never mind the chemical contamination that comes from gasoline itself, think about the sheer number of people endlessly grabbing the pump, often after returning from a pit stop at the not-so-hygienic gas station bathroom. You get the idea. Still, the new study gives one pause and suggests a bottle of sanitizer might not be a bad glove compartment staple.

It's not just the number of germs present on gas pump handles, but the quality of those germs. The earlier Kimberly-Clark study, led by University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba, whom colleagues know as "Dr. Germ," found that 71 percent of the pumps were highly contaminated with germs associated with disease.

The new survey, conducted by Busbud, studied samples from three different gas stations, as well as three different charging stations, to see what we may be exposing ourselves to. The sample size is small, but the results mirror the larger earlier study and are eye-opening.

Based on laboratory results from swabs from the sample gas pumps, handles on gas pumps had an average of 2,011,970 colony-forming units (CFUs), or viable bacteria cells, per square inch. Worse, the buttons on the pumps (where you select the grade of gas you want), had 2,617,067 CFUs per square inch.

Mike Mozart / Flickr

To put that in perspective, money, which is considered quite dirty since it changes hands often, has only 5.2 CFUs per square inch. A toilet seat has 172 CFUs per square inch. That makes a gas pump handle about 11,000 times more contaminated than a toilet seat, and a gas pump button 15,000 times more contaminated.

Okay, so there are over 2 million CFUs dancing around on the gas pump. What kind of germs are they? Luckily, about half of them are usually harmless. These are the CFUs known as gram-positive rods. (I say usually because gram-positive rods can sometimes cause some types of infections, but are not considered unusually worrisome.) But those other million or so CFUs are mostly of the gram-positive cocci variety, and these are nasty critters that can cause skin infections, pneumonia and toxic shock syndrome.

Does the type of gas you select safeguard you in any way? It would seem so, to some small degree. The sampling showed that the buttons for regular gas contained 3,255,100 CFUs per square inch, about a third of which were the gram-positive cocci (bad germs), and another third of which were bacilli, another type of bad-guy bacteria linked to food poisoning and infections in newborn babies. The other third were mostly the safer gram-positive rods, with a smattering, about 5 percent, of gram-negative rods. These latter germs are especially worrisome as they are linked to antibiotic resistance as well as meningitis and pneumonia. The premium gas button had about 2,022,034 CFUs per square inch, divided about half gram-positive rods and half yeast (and we all know about yeast infections).

Since a typical visit to the gas station involves pressing the gas grade button as well as lifting the pump handle, that means, for regular gas, exposure to about 5,267,070 CFUs per square inch, and for premium gas about 4,034,004 CFUs per square inch.

Tesla and Volt owners, rejoice! If you own an electric car, and use a charging station, you can breathe a lot easier. The typical car charger has only 7.890 CFUs per square inch.

If you want to minimize your exposure to these germs, use a paper towel to hold the handle and push the button, or keep that hand sanitizer around and wash your hands after filling up.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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