National Geographic Photojournalist Captures Images of Critical Pollution Problems Worldwide
When U.S. photojournalist Peter Essick visited India and China for the first time, he was struck by how different life there was compared with American cities. But when he returned almost two decades later, he found the changes “staggering.” Bangalore now reminds him of the Silicon Valley, and Beijing and New Delhi are smoggier than anything he had ever encountered at home.
“Development and a high standard of living—which most people around the world view as desirable—come at a cost,” he said.
An award-winning frequent contributor to National Geographic, Essick spent 25 years traveling around the world, documenting environmental threats portrayed in his book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World.
In this slideshow of photographs hand-picked for Environmental Health News, Essick portrays the wide variety of environmental health problems that have afflicted people and ecosystems from Ho Chi Minh City to Lake Erie.
One of his biggest challenges was to find ways to illustrate health problems that are often internal: People are exposed to a variety of pollutants and chemicals that can build up in their bodies, their food and their environment.
"Overall, I believe we are going to find out that the chemicals in products that we all use every day are a factor in many of the documented increases in health problems,” he said.
Essick, who lives in a suburb of Atlanta, worked with experts and environmental groups to locate the best places to photograph lead exposure, pesticide spraying, e-waste, urban runoff and many other issues. He said he gets many of his ideas from Environmental Health News’s daily roundups of environmental news from around the world.
“The problem of lead poisoning is one environmental health problem that I believe is much larger than most people realize. It is also tragic because it most affects children,” he said.
Of all the places he’s traveled on all seven continents, Essick is most concerned about the health of people exposed to severe air and water pollution in China and India.
“I have returned to both countries recently and the changes are staggering. It seems that it is unchecked, rapid economic development that causes the most harm to the environment,” he said.
He first traveled to India in the mid 1990s, then returned recently to photograph an e-waste recycler for a National Geographic article, High Tech Trash.
“My first trip to India I went to rural area in Punjab where they play a lot of field hockey. Maybe it was because I was living in Brooklyn at the time, but the trip felt like an escape from the rat race. I really liked the villages, the people and the food," he said.
“On the trip 20 years later I still liked the people and the food, but I felt that the pace of life had changed to almost completely the opposite from what I had fondly remembered. The smog in New Delhi was terrible and Bangalore was much like visiting a large American city. The pace of life was fast and everything was very expensive. I see why Bangalore is compared to Silicon Valley.”
Essick recently traveled to China for National Geographic's Fertilized World, published last year. During his first trip there, in 2000, he shot photos for a piece on freshwater threats.
“When I went back it seemed that there was much more water and air pollution. Even in rural areas there was lots of construction going on. In the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai there were fewer Chinese riding bicycles, and many more American companies and western amenities available,” he said.
The pace of economic and environmental change in China is unprecedented; it recently surpassed Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and could outgrow the United States by 2028. Its pollution reminds Essick of images he’s seen of U.S. steel mills and smelters, which arose during the Industrial Age of the mid-1800s.
“Why would anyone want to live in a city where you have to wear a mask to go outside and you can't drink the water? It is hard for me to fathom, but the USA also went through a period of development where you grow fast and clean up later,” Essick said.
“I have seen the photos of the steel mills in Pittsburgh a hundred years ago, and I'm sure there was no pollution control on the stacks then. But the development going on now in China and India is unprecedented and I'm sure is having serious health effects on their citizens.”
Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH pages for more related news on this topic.
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Jean-Marc Neveu and Olivier Civil never expected to find themselves battling against disposable mask pollution.
When they founded their recycling start-up Plaxtil in 2017, it was textile waste they set their sights on. The project developed a process that turned fabrics into a new recyclable material they describe as "ecological plastic."
Mounting Piles of Waste<p>It is not only the streets of Chatellerault where pandemic pollution is piling-up, but also the world's beaches and oceans. Once there, they can take up to 450 years to degrade and disappear.</p><p>Esther Röling, co-organizer of the annual Adventure Clean Up Challenge held on Hong Kong Island, has seen this waste firsthand. In October the sports challenge pitted teams against one another in a competition to remove trash from 13 hard-to-reach coastal areas around the city.</p><p>They find tons of both disposable and reusable masks, said Röling. "You wonder how it ended up there. Was it just thrown on the ground? Or was it in a garbage bag that broke open?"</p><p>Almost 10,000 kilometers away in Antibes on the sunny French Riviera, it's a similar picture. For the past few months, divers and clean-up volunteers working with an ocean clean-up non-profit called Operation Mer Propre have been collecting an increasing number of masks found on land and in the sea.</p><p>"Since the beginning of the lockdown when we started to count, we've reached 800, 900, [and now in total] 1000 masks," said co-founder Joko Peltier. </p><p>According to <a href="https://unctad.org/news/growing-plastic-pollution-wake-covid-19-how-trade-policy-can-help" target="_blank">UN estimates</a>, up to 75% of all coronavirus-related plastic could end up as waste in oceans and landfills.</p>
The Limits of Recycling<p>Yet not all are convinced the recycling of this waste is possible on a global scale. </p><p>"What those citizen groups are doing is really beneficial but once they collect it, it should just go to a landfill or an incinerator. They shouldn't necessarily expect it to get recycled," said Jonathan Krones, an industrial ecologist and visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Boston College.</p><p>That's because mask recycling programs like Plaxtil are few and far between and most don't have the benefit of a readily adaptable production process. </p><p>Even in countries with solid recycling infrastructure, he says, the system is designed to separate out specific types of waste like bottles or cardboard.</p><p>"I imagine that it would be technically feasible to develop a separation process to filter out masks, but there simply aren't enough of them to make that economical," he said.</p><p>Collection is a big hurdle, he adds. Since each mask only weighs a fraction of a gram and they're scattered on roads or mixed with other trash, it is difficult and costly. </p><p>"You need a lot of raw material of the right quality to make investing in the recycling technology and the recycling system worthwhile," he said.<span></span><br></p>
Hemp, Sugar Cane and Sustainable Alternatives<p>Some projects are instead addressing the material used to make masks.</p><p>French company Geochanvre have created a mask made primarily from hemp, while in Australia, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology are experimenting with a disposable product made from agricultural waste. </p><p>Biodegradable options are exciting alternatives to reduce the fossil fuels needed for the creation of plastic-based masks, said Krones, but they don't absolve the wearer from the responsibility of what happens afterwards. </p><p>Bio-based masks often need their own composing solutions, he explains, because in landfill they can produce high amounts of the greenhouse gas methane when anaerobic bacteria feeds on the organic material. Methane is known to be significantly more potent than carbon dioxide.</p><p>"I think as long as we have in our mind that we want to have disposability, we're going to have to wrestle with a variety of different sorts of environmental tradeoffs," he said, adding that reusable, fabric masks are the best option available to most people.</p><p>Precimask is developing a clear face covering with an optional visor made from hard plastic, designed to be long-lasting.<br></p><p>Air enters either side of the cheeks through a technology normally found in pool filters and car exhaust systems, said company spokeswoman Juliette Chambet.</p><p>"We wanted to make ceramic-based filters that would be washable and cleanable, which would allow them to be reused as many times as desired without having to buy a new consumable or produce waste," she said. </p><p>Ultimately, encouraging mask wearers to think about the entire lifecycle of a mask is key, explains Neveu. </p><p>"We want people who put on the masks to realize that they are also responsible for the waste, he said. "It's not inevitable that this [pandemic] will become an environmental catastrophe.</p><p><em>Reposted with permission from </em><em><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/covid-19-recycling-pollution-trash-pandemic/a-55707817" target="_blank">Deutsche Welle</a>.</em><a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/r/entryeditor/2649032193#/" target="_self"></a></p>
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