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Groups Act to Force EPA to Issue Soot Air Pollution Standards

Groups Act to Force EPA to Issue Soot Air Pollution Standards

Earthjustice

Public health and environmental groups are taking legal action aimed at forcing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue new standards to limit levels of soot, smoke and other airborne particles linked to thousands of premature deaths each year.

The groups sent a notice of intent to sue letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson giving EPA 60 days to address their failure to conduct a mandatory five-year review of the 2006 particulate matter standards, which should have been completed Oct. 17.

These limits—called the national ambient air quality standards—drive cleanup of pollution across the nation and, by law, must be set to protect public health. The Clean Air Act requires that EPA determine if the standards meet that requirement by reviewing the science every five years.

The letter was filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the American Lung Association and National Parks Conservation Association. In 2006, the Bush administration ignored recommendations by its science advisors for stronger protections and adopted the current, weak particulate matter standards. In 2009, as a result of a legal challenge brought by these groups, a federal appeals court ruled that these standards were deficient and sent them back to EPA for corrective action.

Since then the Obama EPA has failed to propose new standards although the science confirms that particulate matter pollution in the U.S. continues to cause thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of hospital visits every year.

“Scientists, medical professionals, the courts and the general public have agreed for years that deadly soot levels are unacceptable for Americans. Our actions today demand that EPA adopt the legally-required air quality standards that will save thousands lives,” said Paul Cort, staff attorney for Earthjustice.

“The scientific evidence keeps growing to show that particulate matter is a deadly air pollutant—and that the current standards fail to protect us from that threat,” said Janice E. Nolen, assistant vice president, National Policy and Advocacy, for the American Lung Association. “We need EPA to follow the law and finish the job.”

“By adopting more protective soot standards EPA will help clear the air in our national parks at the same time it is making the air healthier for all Americans to breath,” said Mark Wenzler, vice president for Climate and Air Quality at National Parks Conservation Association.

Airborne particulate matter is comprised of tiny particles of smoke, soot, metals and other chemical compounds emitted from sources like power plants, factories and diesel trucks. Scientists say particulate matter which can penetrate deep into our lungs, is one of the most toxic forms of air pollution. They estimate that it is responsible for tens of thousands of premature deaths nationwide every year. It is also linked to the aggravation of respiratory illnesses, such as asthma, bronchitis and chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), and to heart disease and lung cancer. Particulate matter is also responsible for much of the haze that clouds many of our cities and parklands.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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