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How Growing Drugs Damages the Environment
By Tim Schauenberg
Whether they smoked a joint on the couch or sniffed a line in a club, some 269 million people around the world indulged in drugs in 2018, according to the United Nations.
Cocaine production is at record levels, opium has been on an upward trend for the past decade, the market for synthetic drugs is growing in the Netherlands and some countries are legalizing cannabis. In short, business is booming.
It is no secret that drug trafficking and cartel wars cost human lives but so far there has been little focus on how this global trade impacts the environment.
Cannabis Vs. Potatoes: Which Has a Bigger Carbon Footprint?
With 192 million users in 2018, cannabis is by far the most popular drug worldwide — excluding alcohol and tobacco.
Efforts to legalize marijuana are continuing to gather pace in the United States, where the drug has already become a billion-dollar market. But cultivating the plants in greenhouses, with optimum light, ventilation and temperature, guzzles an enormous amount of resources.
According to estimates, cannabis production in the U.S. already accounts for around 1% of the country's total energy consumption.
"Within a single year, approximately 16.5 tons of carbon dioxide are emitted in the United States as the result of indoor cannabis production, equivalent to the annual emissions of 3 million cars," according to a report by the University of California, Davis.
That means that a single joint has a similar carbon footprint to about 6.6 pounds of potatoes.
Cannabis Plants Add to Water Stress
Cannabis is also an extremely thirsty plant, needing twice as much water as tomatoes or grapes.
About 70% of the cannabis consumed across the country is grown in California. Such large-scale cultivation of a crop that requires up to 6 gallons of water per day per plant has only intensified the region's water shortages during dry seasons.
Scientists from the Californian Department of Fisheries and Wildlife estimate that illegal outdoor cultivation has lowered the water level in some flowing streams by up to a quarter.
Clearing Forests to Plant Coca
The ecological footprint of the world's 19 million cocaine users is particularly apparent in Latin America. According to the United Nations, Colombia had the potential to produce 1,120 tons of pure cocaine in 2018 — a record crop for the South American country.
Since 2001, about 741,000,000 acres of forest have been cleared for the cultivation of coca — the plant that produces cocaine.
Following a temporary decline, "we can see actually the same peak of coca that we were watching 20 years ago," Paulo Sandoval, a geographer at the University of Oregon, told DW.
Sandoval's latest satellite data shows that around 123,000 acres of coca are currently being cultivated in Colombia's Amazon region alone — about half of it in nature reserves that are home to a rich diversity of species.
But the plantations he surveyed account for only 20% of the total cultivated area.
Colombia's Approach 'Harms' the Environment
Until now, the Colombian government has relied on a strategy of eradication in its fight against coca cultivation. As part of its campaign, aircraft sprayed plantations with the highly concentrated herbicide glyphosate. This method effectively destroyed many coca plantations, but it also damaged neighboring forests and farmland.
Elizabeth Tellman, a geographer at Columbia University's Earth Institute in New York, says this approach harms rather than helps the environment. And once the fields are destroyed, the cartels simply clear more forests elsewhere and plant new coca crops.
"We do know that it [the destruction of cultivated areas] has not only had no effect (...) it's been really counterproductive," she told DW in an interview.
Coca leaves aren't just grown in the jungle; they're also processed into cocaine in secret laboratories there. This process requires highly toxic chemicals such as ammonia, acetone and hydrochloric acid. Scientists estimate that several million liters of these substances end up in soils and rivers each year. There are now few aquatic plants or animals living in those contaminated waters, according to a 2015 EU report.
MDMA, Ecstasy and Co.
So-called party drugs — from pills to a line of powder in a nightclub bathroom — have grown in popularity in recent years.
The Netherlands and Belgium are hotspots for synthetic drugs. The production of a kilo of pure MDMA, the main substance in ecstasy, results in 10 kilos (22 pounds) of toxic waste — or 30 kilos (66 pounds) in the case of amphetamines. This might include sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acids and acetone, substances that would normally have to be disposed of as hazardous waste using protective suits.
The Dutch Water Research Institute (KWR) estimates that in 2017, around 7,000 tons of these substances were either dumped somewhere in drums or leaked into the ground and rivers. "That's unbelievable," says Eric Emke, a scientist at the KWR.
A report aired by Dutch public broadcaster NOS showed just how abrasive these liquids can be. In it, a scientist immerses a chicken leg in a yellow sodium hydroxide solution. After two days, the meat has completely dissolved, leaving just the bone behind.
Emke says the waste is sometimes dumped into containers used to collect cattle excrement, becoming mixed with the dung that is spread on corn crops.
"And so five years ago, they discovered amphetamine and ecstasy residues in corn lice."
Jeremy Douglas, the regional representative of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime for Southeast Asia, says Thailand, Laos and Myanmar have also become a hub for "industrial scale" global synthetic drug production in recent years.
"The spillover damage to groundwater and habitats is severe, and frankly it is nothing short of an ecological and public health disaster," he said.
Groundwater Sinking in Afghanistan
Around 337,000 football fields, or 23 times the size of Paris — that's the amount of land that was used to cultivate opium worldwide in 2019, according to the UN. The main producers are Myanmar, Mexico and Afghanistan — which accounts for 84% of global cultivation.
Poppy fields spread mainly across the country's southwest in areas where, until the 1990s, there was nothing but arid desert. Today, some 1.4 million people live there, making a living from cultivating opium and agriculture. That's all possible thanks to more than 50,000 solar-powered water pumps that have greened the desert. But that is not as green as it sounds.
A report by socio-economist David Mansfield found that the region's groundwater is sinking by 9.8 feet per year. Wells as deep as 426 feet are now being drilled to find water.
"Each year, more people are arriving in the desert and installing solar deep wells. There are local fears that there will fast become a time when agricultural production will no longer be viable."
The poppy farmers also use chemical fertilizers and strong pesticides to control weeds. Groundwater tests have shown that nitrate levels are significantly higher than what is deemed safe. This can increase the risk of blue-baby syndrome, which leads to heart defects and death in newborns.
Mansfield warns that if water in the region does eventually run out, it will likely force large numbers of people from their homes, sparking a rural exodus.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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By Teri Schultz
Europe is in a panic over the second wave of COVID-19, with infection rates sky-rocketing and GDP plummeting. Belgium has just announced it will no longer test asymptomatic people, even if they've been in contact with someone who has the disease, because the backlog in processing is overwhelming. Other European countries are also struggling to keep up testing and tracing.
Meanwhile in a small cabin in Helsinki airport, for his preferred payment of a morsel of cat food, rescue dog Kossi needs just a few seconds to tell whether someone has coronavirus.
<div id="bfda0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c60b1a0dedbedbe5e0ce44284aff852f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1308390775328251906" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Covid-19 dogs started their work today at the Helsinki Airport at arrival hall 2B. Dogs have been trained to detect… https://t.co/nw4mrw6eJM</div> — Helsinki Airport (@Helsinki Airport)<a href="https://twitter.com/HelsinkiAirport/statuses/1308390775328251906">1600779644.0</a></blockquote></div><p>If it were left to Kossi and his pals, crowds of potential virus carriers could be cleared in a fraction of the time for a fraction of the cost with none of the physical discomfort that accompanies the current nasal swab test based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) method.</p>
No Human Nose Needed<p>A dog can sniff a cloth wiped on a wrist or neck and immediately identify if it comes from someone who has contracted the virus as much as five days before any symptoms appear which would lead a person to go into isolation. "A dog could easily save so so, so many lives," University of Helsinki veterinary researcher Anna Hielm-Bjorkman told DW, who says their testing has shown an accuracy level of nearly 100%.</p><p>It was originally her idea to see whether Kossi, a talented disease-detection dog, could redirect his skills in sniffing out mold, bedbugs and cancer to detecting the new virus just as it started to spread in Europe. "It took him seven minutes to figure out 'okay, this is what you want me to look out for," Hielm-Bjorkman said. "So that totally blew our minds."</p><p>Susanna Paavilainen, the executive director of the Wise Nose scent-detection foundation and the woman who saved Kossi from euthanasia in a Spanish shelter eight years ago, immediately started retraining her dogs to find the coronavirus.</p><p>Miina, who used to track a young girl's blood sugar levels by scent, quickly came on board, along with two others already working in disease detection. In all, they hope to train 15 dogs in the first phase.</p><p>Hielm-Bjorkman said once they discovered the new capabilities, while the normal academic procedure would be to test, publish and get peer-reviewed, their first instinct was to get the dogs into service. "[Researchers] who are actually publishing," she noted wryly, "are not at the airports."</p>
Wags, Not Wages<p>But for that, they needed permission and ideally, some funding. Vantaa Deputy Mayor Timo Aronkyto, who is also responsible for airport security, saw the benefit straight away. "It took me two minutes," he told DW.</p><p>However, his funding options were limited to about $390,000 total for the four-month pilot project aiming to prove that results from the dog tests are at least as accurate as the PCR test. Anyone who tests positive at the voluntary canine site is requested to go to the medical unit for confirmation.</p><p>The interest of Aronkyto, a trained physician, is rooted in both health and wealth. "Our testing at the airport costs more than 1 million [euros] (USD $1.2 million) a month at the moment," he said, explaining he expects that to go up to €3 million (USD. $3.5 million) per month in winter. "These dogs would be much cheaper," he pointed out.</p><p>He's optimistic support will grow as data from the current pilot project accumulates, explaining there is already work underway to change Finnish legislation so eventually sniffer dogs would have the same "authority" as customs dogs.</p><p>Aronkyto anticipates one animal performing both functions in the near future. He plans to continue this level of funding from his city budget into next year but that doesn't train new dogs nor expand the capacity beyond the four that split shifts currently at the airport, even as infection rates rise.</p>
Helsinki Hesitates<p>Notably, however, the Finnish government has not signaled it would like to pick up the program itself, despite a huge surge in publicity and, as Hielm-Bjorkman and Paavilainen emphasize, interest from other countries. Travelers have been eager to participate, waiting in line more than an hour at times.</p><p>Finnish ambassador in Ramallah, Palestine, Paivi Peltokoski, praised the experience after a recent trip but, apparently, her enthusiasm is not overly contagious.</p>
<div id="d9823" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="61d382f115fe66a44eb793d9ebee3d94"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318564228450615299" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">I was tested negative by two #coronadogs upon arrival at the #Helsinki airport in #Finland. Later a medical test ve… https://t.co/cGlWQn8DJb</div> — Päivi Peltokoski (@Päivi Peltokoski)<a href="https://twitter.com/PaiviPeltokoski/statuses/1318564228450615299">1603205184.0</a></blockquote></div><p>"If the government would see this already as something that they would believe in," Hielm-Bjorkman said, she could envision training hundreds of dogs, stationing sniffers at concert halls or sports matches or elderly care homes. She adds there's a need for a "paradigm shift" for both medical professionals and the public.</p><p>Usually it's doctors telling patients if they're sick, she explained, and "here it's a dog handler."</p>
Little Political Will on German Project<p>This situation is not limited to Finland. In Germany researchers also <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/german-sniffer-dogs-show-promise-at-detecting-coronavirus/a-54300863" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">announced promising results</a> with canines <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-german-military-training-sniffer-dogs/a-54062180" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">detecting COVID-19</a>, but no dogs have been used anywhere so far. And then, says Professor Holger Volk of the University of Veterinary Medicine Hanover, there has been insufficient political will or funding to move the project forward, something he called "very troubling" especially with a resurgent infection rate.</p><p>"When we started this whole project, we we did it because we wanted to help to stop the pandemic," Volk told DW. "It's really has been a very frustrating ride. I have had a lot of naysayers in the whole process. If I wasn't a very determined person, having done a lot of research, I would have probably stopped it."</p><p>He agrees with Hielm-Bjorkman's assessment that "it's just not in the perception of doctors that dogs are able to do this precise work." But he also echoes her faith in the vast potential of their discovery. "If you had a dog who could sniff every day quickly your cohort of workers, for example," he said, "think about the impact. You could continue having a workplace."</p><p>Speaking of workplaces, Susanna Paavilainen is starting to think if Finland doesn't want to unleash the dogs' potential at home, she and Kossi might accept one of the many requests from all over the world to provide training. "We can move because Kossi likes warm weather," she says, petting her star sniffer.</p>
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