Big Pharma's Industrial Pollution Goes Unchecked, Breeds Superbug Crisis
By Madlen Davies
Industrial pollution from Indian pharmaceutical companies making medicines for nearly all the world's major drug companies is fueling the creation of deadly superbugs, suggests new research. Global health authorities have no regulations in place to stop this happening.
A major study published May 6 in the prestigious scientific journal Infection found "excessively high" levels of antibiotic and antifungal drug residue in water sources in and around a major drug production hub in the Indian city of Hyderabad, as well as high levels of bacteria and fungi resistant to those drugs. Scientists told the Bureau of Investigative Journalism the quantities found meant they believe the drug residues must have originated from pharmaceutical factories.
The presence of drug residues in the natural environment allows the microbes living there to build up resistance to the ingredients in the medicines that are supposed to kill them, turning them into what we call superbugs. The resistant microbes travel easily and have multiplied in huge numbers all over the world, creating a grave public health emergency that is already thought to kill hundreds of thousands of people a year.
When antimicrobial drugs stop working common infections can become fatal, and scientists and public health leaders say the worsening problem of antibiotic resistance (also known as AMR) could reverse half a century of medical progress if the world does not act fast. Yet while policies are being put into place to counter the overuse and misuse of drugs which has propelled the crisis, international regulators are allowing dirty drug production methods to continue unchecked.
Global authorities like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency strictly regulate drug supply chains in terms of drug safety—but environmental standards do not feature in their rulebook. Drug producers must adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) guidelines—but those guidelines do not cover pollution.
Even the World Health Organization (WHO)—a global public health body which has repeatedly called for concerted international action to tackle the dangerous threat of antibiotic resistance—buys antibiotics from companies whose drug ingredients are made in Hyderabad without carrying out environmental checks.
The international bodies say the governments of the countries where the drugs are made are the ones responsible for stopping pollution—but domestic legislation is having little impact on the ground, say the study's authors. The lack of international regulation must be addressed, they argue, highlighting the grave public health threat faced by antibiotic resistance as well as the rampant global spread of superbugs from India, which has become an epicenter of the crisis.
"Unprecedented Antimicrobial Drug Contamination"
A group of scientists based at the University of Leipzig worked with German journalists to take an in-depth look at pharmaceutical pollution in Hyderabad, where 50 percent of India's drug exports are produced. A fifth of the world's generic drugs are produced in India, with factories based in Hyderabad supplying Big Pharma and public health authorities like World Health Organization with millions of tons of antibiotics and antifungals each year.
The researchers tested 28 water samples in and around the Patancheru-Bollaram Industrial zone on the outskirts of the city, where more than than 30 drug manufacturing companies supplying nearly all the world's major drug companies are based. Thousands of tons of pharmaceutical waste are produced by the factories each day, the paper says.
Almost all the samples contained bacteria and fungi resistant to multiple drugs (known as MDR pathogens, the technical name for superbugs). Researchers then tested 16 of the samples for drug residues and found 13 of them were contaminated with antibiotics and antifungals. Previous studies have shown how exposure to antibiotics and antifungals in the environment causes bacteria and fungi to develop immunity to those drugs.
Environmental pollution and poor management of wastewater in Hyderabad is causing "unprecedented antimicrobial drug contamination" of surrounding water sources, conclude the researchers—contamination which appears to be driving the creation and spread of dangerous superbugs which have spread across the world. Combined with the mass misuse of antibiotics and poor sanitation, superbugs are already having severe consequences in India—an estimated 56,000 newborn babies die from resistant infections there each year.
German broadcaster NDR, which contributed to the study, identified 19 companies operating inside the area tested as suppliers of antibiotics to the European market. Of those 19, the Bureau has identified at least four companies which supply the UK and five which supply the U.S.
The companies in question strongly deny that their factories pollute the environment, and the sheer number of factories operating in Hyderabad means it is impossible to identify exactly which companies are responsible for the contamination found in the samples tested.
What is clear is one of the world's biggest drug production hubs is producing dangerous levels of pharmaceutical pollution, and the international bodies tasked with ensuring drug safety are doing little to address it.
Health regulators have to take action, said Prof. Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy and a leading voice on antibiotic resistance. "We need to take environmental contamination from bulk manufacturing facilities seriously and put an immediate end to the practice," he said. "This should be a part of GMP without question and pharmaceutical companies throughout the world should be subject to an audit to ensure that they are compliant with what the industry has promised to do."
The Epicenter of a Global Crisis
The densely populated and increasingly prosperous city of Hyderabad in southern India was once an international trading centre for diamonds and pearls. Today, it is a major international hub for the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, producing millions of tons of medicines, chemicals and pesticides each year.
Around 170 companies making bulk drugs like antibiotics operate in and around Hyderabad, the majority clustered in sprawling industrial estates along the banks of the Musi river. Companies in Europe and the U.S., as well as health authorities like WHO and the UK's NHS are reliant on drugs being produced in these factories.
The area has long been criticized for its pollution, which has continued unabated despite decades of campaigning by Indian NGOs, say the report authors. In 2009 the Patancheru-Bollaram zone was classified as "critically polluted" in India's national pollution index and construction in the area was banned. But the government relaxed the rules in 2014 and building was allowed to begin again.
Last year India's Supreme Court ordered the country's pharmaceutical companies to operate a zero liquid waste policy, but "massive violations" have reportedly occurred, says the Infection report.
As India's drug production industry has grown, so has the prevalence of superbugs—a national crisis intensified by the widespread overuse and misuse of antibiotics, which are easily bought over the counter, and poor sanitation Alongside the creation of individual superbugs, genes and enzymes have developed which can pass between multiple types of bacteria, making them resistant to drugs.
India has become the epicenter of the global drug resistance crisis, with 56,000 newborn Indian babies estimated to die each year from drug-resistant blood infections, and 70 to 90 percent of people who travel to India returning home with multi-drug-resistant bacteria in their gut, according to the study.
The bacteria can remain in the gut without causing problems, but if they travel from there into a patient's bloodstream or urinary tract they can cause serious infections. They can also pass on resistance to other bacteria in the gut—so if a patient gets food poisoning the bacteria that caused it could acquire the resistance and become hard to treat.
An AMR Nightmare: David Ricci's Story
David Ricci was just 19 when his life changed dramatically. He was hit by a train while walking through the slums of the Indian city of Kolkata where he was helping care for orphaned children. He was left screaming in agonizing pain on the pavement until he blacked out. Later, at a local hospital, a surgeon took a bundle of knives wrapped in a dirty cloth and amputated his leg without any anesthetic—a traumatic event that was just the beginning of his ordeal.
Back in Seattle his wound became infected. Doctors pumped him with antibiotics with little effect until eventually they were forced to perform further surgery to cut out parts of his infected stump. Finally, he was told he had caught two superbugs, which the doctors struggled to treat. He was lucky the bugs were confined to the wound, doctors said. If they had got into his blood he would have died.
The bugs were immune to standard antibiotics so doctors had to to turn to stronger drugs used sparingly in modern medicine because they have nasty side effects. David was drip-fed colistin, a toxic antibiotic reserved for emergencies, but had to be taken off it after a week because his organs began to shut down. He was then given tigecycline, a new antibiotic developed for resistant infections. He had to inject the drug for six months, the dose bumped up whenever the infection returned. It made him feel so nauseous he could barely watch television or make a cup of coffee; he had to spend his days lying around in pain, hoping this course would finally kill the bacteria. "It felt like I was being treated for cancer," he said. "I would wake up thinking 'Please take me off it, please make this stop.'"
David had picked up various bugs in India that contained a gene known as NDM-1, named after New Delhi where it was first discovered in 2008. NDM-1 gives bacteria ability to produce enzymes which break down carbapenems, a group of powerful antibiotics which are used to treat infections that have become resistant to other drugs. Bacteria that are able to resist carbapenems have been called the "nightmare" bacteria by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention because half of all people who contract a bloodstream infection from them die.
NDM-1 has spread across the world since it was discovered. At least 175 people in the U.S. have been treated for an NDM-1 infection since 2009, although there are likely to have been many more cases as hospitals are not required to report it. While many cases come from abroad, infections in patients who have not left the U.S. are now being reported.
NDM-1 is also starting to appear in the UK. There have been 1,129 reports of the bacteria in England since 2003 and this is thought to be a conservative figure.
David eventually recovered, but antibiotic resistance has changed the course of his life. he works with campaigning organizations and talks to members of congress about the issue, and wants to work in medicine in the future.
"I feel like I have a purpose," he said. "The whole experience has made me feel lucky to be alive."
Antimicrobials Found at Levels Thousands of Times Higher Than the Safe Limit
Many previous studies have highlighted pharmaceutical pollution in India and China—which together produce most of the world's antibiotics—and shown how such pollution fuels the proliferation of superbugs worldwide. The authors of the new Infection study set out to provide a detailed picture of the levels and types of pollution in Hyderabad and its links to drug resistance.
Researchers took water samples from rivers, lakes, groundwater, drinking water and surface water from rural and urban areas in and around the industrial estate, as well as pools near factories and water sources contaminated by sewage treatment plants. Four were taken from taps, one from a borehole, and the remaining 23 were classed as environmental samples.
The samples were tested for bacteria resistant to multiple drugs (known as MDR pathogens, the technical name for superbugs). The researchers then tested 16 of the samples for the antibiotics and antifungals used to treat infections.
All samples apart from one taken from tap water at a four star hotel were found to contain drug-resistant bacteria. All 23 environmental samples contained carbapenemase-producing bacteria—a group of bugs dubbed the "nightmare bacteria" because they are virtually untreatable and kill 40-50 percent of people whose blood gets infected with them.
Of the 16 samples then tested for drug residue, 13 were found to be contaminated with antibiotics and antifungals, some in disturbingly high levels. The researchers compared the levels of residue to limits recommended by leading microbiologists; once levels exceed those limits it is likely that superbugs will develop.
A sample taken from one sewer contained concentrations of the antifungal drug fluconazole—a drug used in ointments for fungal infections such as thrush and athlete's foot or given intravenously for more serious infections—at levels 950,000 times higher than the recommended safe limit. The researchers repeatedly analyzed this finding to make sure it was correct. "To our knowledge, this is the highest concentration of any drug ever measured in the environment," wrote the authors.
A member of the inspection team looks at a pond connected to a sewer in the industrial zone. Christian Baars / NDR
Samples from sewers in the industrial area were also found to contain "extremely high concentrations" of nine different antibiotics. Levels of moxifloxacin—used to treat lung, skin and sinus infections as well as tuberculosis—were up to 5,500 times higher than the recommended limit, while another common antibiotic ciprofloxacin was found at levels up to 700 times above that recommended. Concentrations of the antibiotics clarithromycin and ampicillin were found at levels more than 100 times higher than the safe limit.
"Excessively high" concentrations of antibiotic and antifungal residue were found in the natural environment. Christian Baars / NDR
The amounts of antimicrobials found in the new tests were "eye-wateringly high," said Dr. Mark Holmes, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge. "The quantities involved mean the amount in the water is almost the same as a therapeutic dose," he said, calling on the Indian authorities to investigate immediately by testing each factory's effluent. "That's not just getting rid of a few tablets down the toilet."
Pharmaceutical pollution is not the only way in which antibiotics get into the Indian environment—excrement from people and animals and waste from hospitals and farms also contain residues of the drugs. But some of the levels detected in the recent testing mean the residues can only have come from bulk manufacturing, according to scientists.
Prof. Joakim Larsson, of the University of Gothenburg believes the levels of antimicrobials found could not be explained by anything else other than industrial discharges. "So it tells us that the problem is still there, it needs to be solved," he told German journalists who worked on the report.
The pharmaceutical industry in Hyderabad produces "enormous amounts" of waste each day, says the Infection report. Effluent is transported in trucks to one waste treatment plant, it says, where it is treated before being sent to a mega sewage plant. There, it is mixed with sewage and further treated then discharged into the nearby Musi river.
Adhering to the zero liquid waste policy ordered by the Supreme Court requires expensive technology, and some waste is still clandestinely sent to the waste treatment plant or dumped straight into the surrounding environment, according to the report.
Links to U.S. and UK Markets
Virtually all of the world's major drug companies are supplied by production plants in Hyderabad. Various companies whose factories are located next to or near sites where the water samples were taken supply the U.S. and UK markets, though with such huge amounts of antibiotics present throughout the Indian environment it is impossible to concretely link specific factories to specific test results.
Using the Bulk Drug Manufacturing Industry's 2015 manual, which lists all Indian drug manufacturers, their locations and their products, journalists at NDR were able to identify 19 companies operating in the Patancheru-Bollaram area which produce the antimicrobial drugs found in the water samples. (There may be other unnamed manufacturers operating in the area or companies which do not advertise which antimicrobials they produce).
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has linked a number of these companies to the U.S. and UK markets. MSN Pharmachem is one of the fastest growing drug manufacturers in India. It makes the raw ingredient of the antibiotic moxifloxacin on behalf of international drug companies Macleods and Sun Pharmaceuticals, which then turn it into a finished product supplied to the World Health Organization.
Other major companies operating in the zone which supply the U.S. and UK markets include Aurobindo, a leading Indian producer which exports to more than 150 countries around the globe and Mylan, a company which claims its products fill one out of every 13 prescriptions dispensed in America. Mylan also supplies the European Union market, and says it is the fourth biggest supplier of generic (non-branded) drugs in the UK.
The companies strongly refute suggestions that their factories are responsible for pollution.
MSN Pharmachem said it conformed to the highest industry standards, applicable laws and regulations and operated a zero discharge policy at its factories.
"Our sites are regularly monitored internally and inspected externally," said a spokesperson. "We are committed to a clean environment, health of all our employees, neighbors, partners and customers."
Aurobindo said it was impossible any pollution could have originated from its factories as it also operated a zero liquid waste policy—all waste is treated and recycled within the plants. It also said the topography and water flows of the relevant locations meant not even rainwater or drain water would be able to flow from its factories to the sample collection sites.
Mylan also said its factory could not have contributed to the residues identified by the researchers, as all its plants operated a zero liquid waste policy whereby all effluent is recycled and reused on site. It has its own wastewater treatment systems at all its Hyderabad plants, said a spokesperson, which use advanced technology to eliminate harmful waste. "These plants are operated 24 hours a day, seven days a week by qualified individuals," said the statement.
Macleods and Sun Pharmaceuticals did not respond to requests for comment.
A WHO spokesperson said the organization did not buy the drug ingredients, just the final medicine, and had no contact with ingredient manufacturers. "Manufacturing sites are typically inspected for Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) which focuses on ensuring consistent quality for the product in question from the perspective of human health risk," said a statement. "GMP does not address waste management and environmental management measures vis-à- vis emissions and pollution control—as here relevant domestic environmental and industrial regulations would apply."
Food Poisoning Turned Into a Near-Death Experience
Andrew, 57 and his wife Sally fell ill with upset stomachs soon after arriving in New Delhi to take up a new job.
While his wife quickly recovered, Andrew took weeks to get better. He had another bout of severe sickness and diarrhea a few months later, and kept getting ill sporadically for the rest of the year.
"What we didn't know then was that he'd contracted a serious bacterial infection that was now living in his body," said Sally. "His personality changed. He became extremely anxious, he couldn't relax, felt ill and was distracted. I was so worried, our life was really deteriorating in every aspect."
His condition got worse over time, and Andrew was admitted into hospital where he was told he had a urinary tract infection.
The hospital prescribed powerful intravenous antibiotics, which initially seemed to work, but a few weeks later he woke up with a fever. He was rushed back to hospital, where doctors said dangerously ill with sepsis—his organs were shutting down.
He recovered enough to return to the UK, where doctors at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine said his infection contained NDM-1. Tests showed it was resistant to all antibiotics save one, fosfomycin. Andrew and Sally got their affairs in order, fearing he would die if the infection returned.
Friends began to avoid him believing they might catch the bacteria. Now retired and under the care of specialists, he and his wife worry that NDM-1 is so widespread in India it is only a matter of time before it becomes more common in the UK.
"Unless companies are called for account for their distribution of waste, until the Indian government starts teaching hand hygiene in hospitals and in catering facilities like hotels and restaurants, the possibility of this infection spreading worldwide is huge," said Sally. "It's a cliché to say 'I don't want people to go through what we went through' but it's true. It's changed our life."
Names have been changed to protect identities
No Mention of Pollution in Global Regulations
There are reams of regulations and stipulations that manufacturers have to adhere to in order to export their products to the U.S. and Europe—known as the Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) framework. These focus on making sure drugs are safe, pure, and effective.
Stringent inspections by the FDA, WHO and European authorities check that these rules are being followed.
However these regulations do not address environmental concerns. Inspectors have no mandate to sanction a factory for polluting, failing to treat its waste or other environmental problems—this falls within the remit of local governments.
Within India, there are environmental regulations covering what ingredients factories are allowed to produce, how they use water and how they dispose of their waste. In Hyderabad, the Telangana State Pollution Board inspects factories based on these.
However these inspection have been labeled toothless by local and international campaign groups. In November 2015, an analysis of Telangana State Pollution Board inspection reports by the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi found that 15 bulk drug manufacturers within the Patancheru Bollaram industrial area were producing ingredients for which they did not have permission, using more water than the permitted limit, and dumping more effluents and hazardous waste than allowed.
Lots of promises have been made. More than 100 drug companies (including Mylan) signed a declaration at the World Economic Forum in Davos at the beginning of last year pledging to clean up production; commitments which were repeated in an industry roadmap released by 13 major manufacturers in the run-up to the first ever high-level United Nations meeting on antimicrobial resistance last September.
Last week the European Commission also published a roadmap acknowledging the release of antimicrobial ingredients into the environment during manufacture "may pose a risk." It promised it would explore how to address the challenge in 2018, but fell short of committing to actual policy.
The UK government promised to take action on pollution in NHS supply chains following a previous Bureau report last October, but could not comment on whether this had been followed up due to purdah rules prohibiting any policy announcements in the run-up to an election.
And WHO, along with sister UN agencies, signed a "Statement of Intent" last December aimed at "advancing environmental and socially responsible procurement" of their health products. Just this week, WHO director-general Margaret Chan warned the world was moving towards a "post-antibiotic era" and called once again for concerted global action. She listed actions which were urgently needed, including cutting antibiotic prescriptions, developing new drugs and coordinated government policies around the world. She did not mention pharmaceutical pollution.
The European Public Health Alliance, an umbrella group for more than 90 non-profit organizations, lambasted the failure of international regulators to do anything about the "rife" pollution which was a "clear cause" of AMR.
"This glaring omission must be rectified by including legally binding environmental standards in GMP protocols, particularly with regard to contamination with antimicrobial substances—as a condition for authorization and import of drugs," said a spokesperson. "Voluntary agreements are not enough to stop a race to the bottom, where pharmaceutical companies exploit weak links in global supply chains, in places where there is little or no enforcement of vital environmental standards."
Tighter regulations on pollution must be introduced, said Dr Yohei Doi, associate professor of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and it was up to international buyers of drugs such as the FDA to make this happen. "It's the buyers in the U.S. that pay for these things," he said. "As long as people buy these drugs, the companies will keep making them in this way."
The documentary by NDR, WDR and SZ, The Invisible Enemy—Deadly Superbugs from Pharma Factories, will air on May 8 at 10:45 p.m. on the channel ARD. An English version will appear on the channel's YouTube feed.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
By Courtney Lindwall
Coined in the 1970s, the classic Earth Day mantra "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" has encouraged consumers to take stock of the materials they buy, use, and often quickly pitch — all in the name of curbing pollution and saving the earth's resources. Most of us listened, or lord knows we tried. We've carried totes and refused straws and dutifully rinsed yogurt cartons before placing them in the appropriately marked bins. And yet, nearly half a century later, the United States still produces more than 35 million tons of plastic annually, and sends more and more of it into our oceans, lakes, soils, and bodies.
Clearly, something isn't working, but as a consumer, I'm sick of the weight of those millions of tons of trash falling squarely on consumers' shoulders. While I'll continue to do my part, it's high time that the companies profiting from all this waste also step up and help us deal with their ever-growing footprint on our planet.
An investigation last year by NPR and PBS confirmed that polluting industries have long relied on recycling as a greenwashing scapegoat. If the public came to view recycling as a panacea for sky-high plastic consumption, manufacturers—as well as the oil and gas companies that sell the raw materials that make up plastics—bet they could continue deluging the market with their products.
There are currently no laws that require manufacturers to help pay for expensive recycling programs or make the process easier, but a promising trend is emerging. Earlier this year, New York legislators Todd Kaminsky and Steven Englebright proposed a bill—the "Extended Producer Responsibility Act"—that would make manufacturers in the state responsible for the disposal of their products.
Other laws exist in some states for hazardous wastes, such as electronics, car batteries, paint, and pesticide containers. Paint manufacturers in nearly a dozen states, for example, must manage easy-access recycling drop-off sites for leftover paint. Those laws have so far kept more than 16 million gallons of paint from contaminating the environment. But for the first time, manufacturers could soon be on the hook for much broader categories of trash—including everyday paper, metal, glass, and plastic packaging—by paying fees to the municipalities that run waste management systems. In addition to New York, the states of California, Washington, and Colorado also currently have such bills in the works.
"The New York bill would be a foundation on which a modern, more sustainable waste management system could be built," says NRDC waste expert Eric Goldstein.
In New York City alone, the proposed legislation would cover an estimated 50 percent of the municipal waste stream. Importantly, it would funnel millions of dollars into the state's beleaguered recycling programs. This would free up funds to hire more workers and modernize sorting equipment while also allowing cities to re-allocate their previous recycling budgets toward other important services, such as education, public parks, and mass transit.
The bills aren't about playing the blame game—they are necessary. Unsurprisingly, Americans still produce far more trash than anyone else in the world, clocking in at an average of nearly 5 pounds per person, every day—clogging landfills and waterways, harming wildlife, contributing to the climate crisis, and blighting communities. As of now, a mere 8 percent of the plastic we buy gets recycled, and at least six times more of our plastic waste ends up in an incinerator than gets reused.
It's easy to see why. Current recycling rules vary widely depending on where you live—and they're notoriously confusing. Contrary to what many of us have been told, proper recycling requires more than simply looking for that green-arrowed triangle, a label that may tell you what a product is made out of and that it is recyclable in theory, but not whether that material can be recycled in your town—or anywhere at all. About 90 percent of all plastic can't be recycled, often because it's either logistically difficult to sort or there's no market for it to be sold.
That recycling marketplace is also ever changing. When China, which was importing about a third of our country's recyclable plastic, started refusing our (usually contaminated) waste streams in 2018, demand for recyclables tanked. This led to cities as big as Philadelphia and towns as small as Hancock, Maine, to send even their well-sorted recyclables to landfills. Municipalities now had to either foot big bills to pick up recyclables they once sold for a profit or shutter recycling services altogether.
According to Goldstein, New York's bill has a good shot of passing this spring—and it already has the support of some companies that see the writing on the wall, or as the New York Times puts it, "the glimmer of a cultural reset, a shift in how Americans view corporate and individual responsibility." If the bill does go through, New Yorkers could start to see changes to both local recycling programs and product packaging within a few years.
What makes these bills so groundbreaking isn't that they force manufacturers to pay for the messes they make, but that they could incentivize companies to make smarter, less wasteful choices in the first place.
New York's bill, for instance, could help reward more sustainable product design. A company might pay less of a fee if it reduces the total amount of waste of a product, sources a higher percentage of recycled material, or makes the end product more easily recyclable by, say, using only one type of plastic instead of three.
"Producers are in the best position to be responsible because they control the types and amounts of packaging, plastics, and paper products that are put into the marketplace," Goldstein says.
Bills like these embody the principles of a circular economy—that elusive North Star toward which all waste management policies should point. By encouraging companies to use more recycled materials, demand for recyclables goes up and the recycling industry itself is revitalized. What gets produced gets put back into the stream for reuse.
If widely adopted, we could significantly reduce our overall consumption and burden on the planet. With less paper used, more forests would stay intact—to continue to store carbon, filter air and water, and provide habitat for wildlife and sustenance for communities. With less plastic produced, less trash would clog oceans and contaminate ecosystems and food supplies. In turn, we'd give fossil fuels even more reasons to stay in the ground, where they belong.
That would be my Earth Day dream come true—with little hand-wringing of fellow guilt-stricken individuals required.
Courtney Lindwall is a writer and editor in NRDC's Communications department. Prior to NRDC, she worked in publishing and taught writing to New York City public school students. Lindwall has a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She is based in the New York office.
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By Alexandria Villaseñor
This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.
After experiencing California's wildfires, I researched the connection between wildfires and climate change. Even though I was only 13 at the time, I realized I needed to do everything in my power to advocate for our planet and ensure that we have a safe and habitable Earth for not only my generation's future, but for future generations. Every day, our planet is increasing its calls for our help. Our ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; heatwaves and droughts are increasing. We're seeing more frequent wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other extreme weather events. Climate change is happening right now, and people all over the world are losing their livelihoods — and even their lives — as a result of the growing number of climate-fueled disasters.
My activism started with the youth climate strike movement, which began when Greta Thunberg started striking in front of the Swedish Parliament in 2018. However, I want to acknowledge that young people, especially youth of color, have been protesting and demanding action for the planet for decades. I'm honored to follow in the footsteps of all the youth activists who paved the way for my activism and for the phenomenal growth of the youth climate movement that we have seen since 2018.
My experiences in the youth climate movement have allowed me to see that one of the greatest barriers we have to urgent climate action is education. Because of the lack of climate education around the world, I founded Earth Uprising International to help young people educate one another on the climate crisis, which ultimately has the effect of empowering young people to take direct action for their futures.
The primary mission of Earth Uprising International is increased climate and civics education for youth. Climate literacy and environmental education are the first steps to mobilizing our generations. By adding climate literacy to curricula worldwide, governments can ensure young people leave school with the skills and environmental knowledge needed to be engaged citizens in their communities. A climate-educated and environmentally literate global public is more likely to take part in the green jobs revolution, make more sustainable consumer choices, and hold world leaders accountable for their climate action commitments. Youth who have been educated about the climate crisis will lead the way in adaptation, mitigation, and solution making. Youth will be the ones who will protect democracy and freedom, advocate for climate and environmental migrants, and create the political will necessary to address climate change at the scale of the crisis.
So this year, for Earth Week, I am thrilled to be organizing a global youth climate summit called "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," on April 20. Together, in collaboration with EARTHDAY.ORG and hundreds of youth climate activists around the world, the summit will address our main issues of concern, including climate literacy, biodiversity protection, sustainable agriculture, the creation of green jobs, civic skill training, environmental justice, environmental migration and borders, the protection of democracy and free speech, governmental policy making, and political will.
From this summit, youth climate activists from all over the world will be creating a concise list of demands that we want addressed at President Biden's World Leaders Summit, occurring on Earth Day, April 22. We believe that youth must inform and inspire these critical conversations about climate change that will impact all of us!
For more information about our global youth climate summit, "Youth Speaks: Our Message to World Leaders," go to www.EarthUprising.org/YouthSpeaks2021. There, you will find information about how to participate in our summit as well as be kept up to date on the latest agenda, participants, and follow along as we develop our demands and platform.
The youth will continue to make noise and necessary trouble. There is so much left to be done.
This story originally appeared in Teen Vogue and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
By Jessica Corbett
As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.
"Today is a watershed moment in the history of the U.S. Department of the Interior," declared Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. "With Secretary Haaland's actions today, it's clear the Interior Department is now working for communities, science, and justice. We are grateful for her leadership and bold action to put people over polluters."
"Today's orders make certain that the Interior Department is no longer going to serve as a rubber-stamp for the coal and oil and gas industries," said Nichols. "Secretary Haaland's actions set the stage for deep reforms within the Interior Department to ensure the federal government gets out of the business of fossil fuels and into the business of confronting the climate crisis."
BREAKING: Interior Secretary Deb Haalaned just repealed Trump-era policies that prioritized Big Oil execs above com… https://t.co/m1d2uolRWV— Friends of the Earth (Action) (@Friends of the Earth (Action))1618595500.0
Secretarial Order 3398 rescinds a dozen orders issued under the Trump administration which an Interior statement collectively described as "inconsistent with the department's commitment to protect public health; conserve land, water, and wildlife; and elevate science."
Specifically, she revoked: S.O. 3348; S.O. 3349; SO 3350; S.O. 3351; SO 3352; S.O. 3354; S.O. 3355; S.O. 3358; S.O. 3360; S.O. 3380; SO 3385; and SO 3389. Implemented throughout former President Donald Trump's term, they related to "American energy independence," the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and leasing and permitting for energy projects, among other topics. With the order, Haaland reinstated the federal moratorium on coal leasing.
Haaland's other measure, Secretarial Order 3399, establishes a departmental Climate Task Force that will identify policies needed to tackle the climate emergency, support the use of the best available science on greenhouse gas emissions, implement the review and reconsideration of federal gas and oil leasing and permitting practices, identify actions needed to "address current and historic environmental injustice" as well as "foster economic revitalization of, and investment in, energy communities," and work with state, tribe, and local governments.
The department also noted that "the solicitor's office issued a withdrawal of M-37062, an opinion that concluded that the Interior secretary must promulgate a National Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program consisting of a five-year lease schedule with at least two lease sales during the five-year plan," which allows DOI "to evaluate its obligations under the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act."
Today, @SecHaaland revoked a dozen pro-Big Oil and anti-environment orders from the Trump administration. Little by… https://t.co/p0tHEciEct— Western Values Project (@Western Values Project)1618606421.0
Haaland — a former congresswoman and first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary whose confirmation was celebrated by climate campaigners, Indigenous leaders, and various progressive advocacy groups — said Friday that "from day one, President Biden was clear that we must take a whole-of-government approach to tackle the climate crisis, strengthen the economy, and address environmental justice."
"At the Department of the Interior, I believe we have a unique opportunity to make our communities more resilient to climate change and to help lead the transition to a clean energy economy, Haaland continued. "These steps will align the Interior Department with the president's priorities and better position the team to be a part of the climate solution."
"I know that signing secretarial orders alone won't address the urgency of the climate crisis. But I'm hopeful that these steps will help make clear that we, as a department, have a mandate to act," she added. "With the vast experience, talent, and ingenuity of our public servants at the Department of the Interior, I'm optimistic about what we can accomplish together to care for our natural resources for the benefit of current and future generations."
Haaland's orders were welcomed by environmental and climate groups as well as other critics of fossil fuel development on public lands and in federal waters.
Kristen Miller, conservation director at Alaska Wilderness League, said the orders "are another important step toward restoring scientific integrity, meaningful public process, and the longstanding stewardship responsibilities for America's public lands and waters at the Department of Interior. This is the type of bold and visionary leadership we need if we're to effectively fight climate change, tackle the extinction crisis, and prioritize environmental justice and tribal consultation."
"We applaud the secretary's actions to ensure meaningful consultation and elevate strong science, especially around climate change, into decision-making across the department," Miller added. "And we thank the secretary for reversing the Trump administration's energy dominance agenda in the Arctic Ocean and the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, and look forward to working with her on a different management direction for the western Arctic that focuses on addressing the climate crisis and protecting its extraordinary wildlife habitat, biodiversity, and cultural values."
Environment America public lands campaign director Ellen Montgomery said that "Haaland is building on President Biden's strong start by restoring conservation as a priority for the Department of the Interior. Our public lands and waters should be protected for the sake of the wildlife and people who depend on them. They should not be mined and drilled to extract fossil fuels — an antiquated 20th-century pursuit that pollutes our air and makes climate change worse."
"The Interior Department is in a powerful position to drive bold action for the climate in the United States," said Nichols of WildEarth Guardians. "Haaland's actions today confirm that President Biden and his administration are seizing the opportunity to rein in fossil fuels and make climate action and climate justice a reality."
"We can't have fossil fuels and a safe climate and today's orders take a major step forward in acknowledging and acting upon this reality," he said. "If we truly have any chance of protecting peoples' health, advancing economic prosperity, and achieving environmental justice, we have to start keeping our fossil fuels in the ground."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
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By Michael Svoboda
For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.
The earliest Earth Days raised awareness, led to passage of new laws, and spurred conservation. But the original problems are still with us. And now they intersect with climate change, making it impossible to address one problem without affecting the others.
The 12 books listed below remind us about these defining interconnections.
The first three focus on biodiversity and on humanity's fractured relationships with the animals we live with on land.
The second trio explores the oceans and, at the same time, considers social and cultural factors that determine what we know – and don't know – about the 75% of our planet that is covered by water, perhaps the least well understood part of the climate system.
Agriculture and food security are examined by the third tranche of titles. This set includes a biography that may challenge what you think was/is possible, culturally and politically, in the American system.
Finally, there is the problem of waste, the problem of single-use plastics in particular. These three titles offer practical advice and qualified hope. Reducing litter might also reduce emissions – and vice versa.
As always, the descriptions of the works listed below are drawn from copy provided by the publishers or organizations that released them. When two dates of publication are included, the latter is for the paperback edition.
A Life on Our Planet My Witness Statement and Vision for the Future, by David Attenborough (Grand Central Publishing 2020, 272 pages, $26.00)
See the world. Then make it better. I am 93. I've had an extraordinary life. It's only now that I appreciate how extraordinary. As a young man, I felt I was out there in the wild, experiencing the untouched natural world – but it was an illusion. The tragedy of our time has been happening all around us, barely noticeable from day to day – the loss of our planet's wild places, its bio-diversity. I have been witness to this decline. A Life on Our Planet is my witness statement, and my vision for the future. It is the story of how we came to make this, our greatest mistake – and how, if we act now, we can yet put it right. We have one final chance to create the perfect home for ourselves and restore the wonderful world we inherited. All we need is the will to do so.
Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction, by Michelle Nijhuis (W.W. Norton 2021, 352 pages, $27.95)
In the late 19th century, as humans came to realize that our industrializing and globalizing societies were driving other animal species to extinction, a movement to conserve them was born. In Beloved Beasts, science journalist Michelle Nijhuis traces the movement's history. She describes the vital role of scientists and activists such as Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson; she reveals the origins of organizations like the Audubon Society and the World Wildlife Fund; she explores current efforts to protect species; and she confronts the darker side of conservation, long shadowed by racism and colonialism. As the destruction of other species continues and the effects of climate change escalate, Beloved Beasts charts the ways conservation is becoming a movement for the protection of all species – including our own.
How to Be an Animal: A New History of What It Means to Be Human, by Melanie Challenger (Penguin Random House 2021, 272 pages, $17.00 paperback)
How to Be an Animal tells a remarkable story of what it means to be human and argues that at the heart of our existence is a profound struggle with being animal. We possess a psychology that seeks separation between humanity and the rest of nature, and we have invented grand ideologies to magnify this. In her book, nature historian Melanie Challenger explores the ways this mindset affects our lives, from our politics to our environments. She examines how technology influences our relationship with our own animal nature and with the other species with whom we share this fragile planet. Blending nature writing, history, and philosophy, How to Be an Animal both reappraises what it means to be human and robustly defends what it means to be an animal.
Ocean Speaks: How Marie Tharp Revealed the Ocean's Biggest Secret, by Jess Keating, Illustrated by Katie Hickey (Tundra Books 2020, 34 pages, $17.99)
From a young age, Marie Tharp loved watching the world. She loved solving problems. And she loved pushing the limits of what girls and women were expected to do and be. In the mid-twentieth century, women were not welcome in the sciences, but Marie was tenacious. She got a job at a laboratory in New York. But then she faced another barrier: women were not allowed on the research ships (they were considered bad luck on boats). So Marie stayed back and dove deep into the data her colleagues recorded. At first the scientific community refused to believe her, but her evidence was irrefutable. The mid-ocean ridge that Marie discovered is the single largest geographic feature on the planet, and she mapped it all from her small, cramped office.
Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don't Know about the Ocean, by Naomi Oreskes (University of Chicago Press 2021, 744 pages, $40.00)
What difference does it make who pays for science? After World War II, the US military turned to a new, uncharted theater of warfare: the deep sea. The earth sciences – particularly physical oceanography and marine geophysics – became essential to the US Navy, which poured unprecedented money and logistical support into their study. In Science on a Mission, historian Naomi Oreskes delves into the role of patronage in science, what emerges is a vivid portrait of how naval oversight transformed what we know about the sea. It is a detailed, sweeping history that illuminates the ways funding shapes the subject, scope, and tenor of research, and it raises profound questions about American science. What difference does it make who pays? A lot.
Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It, by Albert Bates (Groundswell Books 2020, 158 pages, $12.95 paperback)
Our oceans face levels of devastation previously unknown in human history due to pollution, overfishing, and damage to delicate aquatic ecosystems affected by global warming. Climate author Albert Bates explains how ocean life maintains adequate oxygen levels, prevents erosion from storms, and sustains a vital food source that factory-fishing operations cannot match. Bates also profiles organizations dedicated to changing the human impact on marine reserves, improving ocean permaculture, and putting the brakes on heat waves that destroy sea life and imperil human habitation at the ocean's edge. The Dark Side of the Ocean conveys a deep appreciation for the fragile nature of the ocean's majesty and compels us to act now to preserve it.
The Planter of Modern Life: Louis Bromfield and the Seeds of a Food Revolution, by Stephen Heyman (W.W. Norton 2020, 352 pages, $26.95)
Louis Bromfield was a World War I ambulance driver, a Paris expat, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist as famous in the 1920s as Hemingway. But he cashed in his literary success to finance a wild agrarian dream in his native Ohio. There, in 1938, Bromfield transformed 600 badly eroded acres into a thriving cooperative farm, which became a mecca for agricultural pioneers and a country retreat for celebrities like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. This sweeping biography unearths a lost icon of American culture. While Bromfield's name has faded into obscurity, his mission seems more critical today than ever before. The ideas he planted at his utopian experimental farm, Malabar, would inspire America's first generation of organic farmers and popularize the tenets of environmentalism years before Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.
Food Fights: How History Matters to Contemporary Food Debates, edited by Charles C. Ludington and Matthew Morse Booker (University of North Carolina Press 2019, 304 pages, $32.95 paperback)
What we eat, where it is from, and how it is produced are vital questions in today's America. We think seriously about food because it is freighted with the hopes, fears, and anxieties of modern life. Yet critiques of food and food systems all too often sprawl into jeremiads against modernity itself, while supporters of the status quo refuse to acknowledge the problems with today's methods of food production and distribution. Food Fights sheds new light on these crucial debates, using a historical lens. Its essays take strong positions, even arguing with one another, as they explore the many themes and tensions that define how we understand our food – from the promises and failures of agricultural technology to the politics of taste.
Our Changing Menu: Climate Change and the Foods We Love and Need, by Michael P. Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle L. Eiseman (Comstock Publishing Associates 2021, 264 pages, $21.95 paperback)
Our Changing Menu unpacks the increasingly complex relationships between food and climate change. In it, Michael Hoffmann, Carrie Koplinka-Loehr, and Danielle Eiseman offer an eye-opening journey through a complete menu of before-dinner drinks and salads; main courses and sides; and coffee and dessert. Along the way, they examine the escalating changes occurring to the flavors of spices and teas, the yields of wheat, the vitamins in rice, and the price of vanilla. Their story ends with a primer on the global food system, the causes and impacts of climate change, and what we can do. Our Changing Menu is a celebration of food and a call to all – from the common ground of food – to help tackle the greatest challenge of our time.
Plastic Free: The Inspiring Story of a Global Environmental Movement and Why It Matters, by Rebecca Prince-Ruiz and Joanna Atherhold Finn (Columbia University Press 2020, 272 pages, $28.00)
In July 2011, Rebecca Prince-Ruiz challenged herself and some friends to go plastic free for the whole month. Since then, the Plastic Free July movement has grown from a small group of people in the city of Perth into a 250-million strong community across 177 countries. Plastic Free tells the story of this world-leading environmental campaign. From narrating marine-debris research expeditions to tracking what actually happens to our waste to sharing insights from behavioral research, Plastic Free speaks to the massive scale of the plastic waste problem and how we can tackle it together. Interweaving interviews from participants, activists, and experts, it tells the inspiring story of how ordinary people have created change in their homes, communities, workplaces, schools, businesses, and beyond. Plastic Fee offers hope for the future.
Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer (Penguin Books 2021, 272 pages, $22.00)
Since the dawn of the recycling system, men and women the world over have stood by their bins, holding an everyday object, wondering, "Can I recycle this?" This simple question links our concerns for the environment with how we interact with our local governments. Recycling rules seem to differ in every municipality, leaving average Americans scratching their heads at the simple act of throwing something away. Taking readers on an informative tour of how recycling actually works (setting aside the propaganda we were all taught as kids), Can I Recycle This gives straightforward answers to whether dozens of common household objects can be recycled. And it provides the information you need to make that decision for anything else you encounter.
Zero Waste Living: The 80/20 Way: The Busy Person's Guide to a Lighter Footprint, by Stephanie J. Miller (Changemaker Books 2020, 112 pages, $10.95 paperback)
Many of us feel powerless to solve the looming climate and waste crises. We have too much on our plates, and so may think these problems are better solved by governments and businesses. This book unlocks the potential in each "too busy" individual to be a crucial part of the solution. Stephanie Miller combines her climate-focused career with her own research and personal experience to show how relatively easy lifestyle changes can create significant positive impacts. Using the simplicity of the 80/20 rule, she shows us those things (the 20%) that we can do to make the biggest (80%) difference in reversing the climate and waste crises. Her book empowers busy individuals to do the easy things that have a real impact on the climate and waste crises.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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