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Nitrate Contaminating Drinking Water for More Than 254,000 Californians

Clean Water Action

The University of California at Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences released a major report on March 19 detailing extensive nitrate contamination in groundwater used as drinking water in the state's two leading agricultural regions—The Tulare Lake Basin in the Central Valley, and the Salinas Valley on the Central Coast. It finds that nitrate is now polluting the drinking water for a quarter million people, with projections that millions more Californians will be affected in the future. The report estimates that providing safe water to the communities currently affected will cost $20 to $36 million per year. Nitrate has been linked to Blue Baby syndrome, miscarriage, birth defects, diabetes, thyroid disease and cancer. (See below for contact info, solutions & key findings).

For years, families throughout the Salinas and Tulare regions have lugged gallons of water into their homes every week because nitrate levels mean it’s unsafe to drink from the tap. Even elementary schools in the affected communities are forced to buy bottled water for their children.

“Imagine not being able to cook with or drink the water out of your tap. But that’s what’s happening in California’s two most profitable farm regions,” says Laurel Firestone, co-director of Community Water Center in Visalia, Calif. Rural, low-income areas with small systems are especially vulnerable to nitrate contamination because they can’t afford expensive water treatment systems. “It’s time to ensure that California’s farm communities have access to safe and affordable drinking water.”

“The state has known for 40 years that applying too much fertilizer contaminates drinking water with unsafe levels of nitrates,” says Maria Herrera, of Community Water Center. “Trying to fix the problem through voluntary actions has not worked, and meanwhile the problem has gotten worse. We need to stem the problem at its source and reduce unnecessary fertilizer use."

Unlike pesticides, the use of chemical fertilizer is not regulated, taxed or monitored. “The state needs to implement a program that ensures wide-scale adoption of farm practices to reduce the amount of fertilizer that comes off fields,” says Jennifer Clary, of Clean Water Action.

On March 14, the Central Coast Water Board will be voting on a program that requires farmers to monitor and protect groundwater quality. According to Clary, “this program is an essential first step to protecting communities and water safety in the Salinas Valley area and will create a precedent for protecting impacted communities in other regions of the state.” The Central Valley Regional Water Board is also working on a series of regulatory permits that will require irrigated lands to protect groundwater quality for the first time ever. The first draft order in the Central Valley is expected in April.

Key report findings include:

  • The total volume of groundwater exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for nitrate in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley is 32.2 million acre feet and 3.4 million acre feet, respectively. The amount is equal to 11 trillion gallons—so vast it would fill Lake Shasta nearly eight times.
  • Agricultural activities are responsible for 96 percent of the pollution, with chemical fertilizer making up 54 percent of the sources.
  • About 254,000 people are currently at risk. One million people—more than 57 percent of residents in the two areas—rely on a community water system with recorded nitrate concentrations that have been above the MCL at least once between 2006 and 2010.
  • Report authors estimate that if nothing is done to prevent more runoff from farms, by 2050, nearly 80 percent of the residents in the Tulare and Salinas regions could be impacted.  

Additional Background:

Advocates call for solutions

The Community Water Center, Clean Water Action, and California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation are calling for funding to develop and implement safe drinking water solutions to affected communities; a state program to provide tools and strong incentives to ensure fertilizer is used more efficiently to prevent pollution; and a framework to measure the effectiveness of these efforts.

Legislative action

Four bills have been proposed this year to fund and provide safe drinking water in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin, and to support farm implementation of best management practices. They include:

  • AB685 (Eng) Establishing a State Policy to Implement the Human Right to Water in California
  • AB1669 (Perea): Establishing a mechanism to direct funding to develop and implement drinking water solutions in Nitrate At Risk Areas.
  • AB 2174 (Alejo): Expands CDFA’s Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) to provide assistance to farmers to implement pollution prevention management practices, as well as makes funds available to communities to mitigate the impacts of fertilizer contamination.
  • AB2238 (Perea): Establishing clearer funding mechanisms to develop and implement projects that connect and consolidate small disadvantaged community water systems without safe, affordable drinking water.

Farm-based solutions

Advocates call for rescuing the Fertilizer Research and Education Program (FREP) program from the fertilizer industry and reform it so that it helps fund technical assistance and outreach needed by farmers and farm communities. AB 2174, sponsored by Assemblymember Luis Alejo, will expand the FREP program to provide technical assistance to farmers, who have been paying into this fund for 20 years and have not received the practical support necessary to implement more effective nitrogen management practices.

Clear requirements for groundwater protection and monitoring should be implemented through the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Programs to ensure that farms are on a level playing field and best management practices adopted on a large scale to protect community drinking water supplies.

A national problem

Concern is growing nationally over the environmental and health impacts of nitrogen pollution, spurred mainly by the use of chemical nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen runoff from farms acts as unwanted fertilizer that spurs the growth of algae in lakes and coastal areas, essentially choking out other forms of marine life. Surveys by the EPA show that about one-third of U.S. streams and two-fifths of U.S. lakes are impaired by high nitrogen concentrations. And two-thirds of U.S. coastal systems, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, are moderately to severely impaired.

Meanwhile, nitrate contamination affects communities throughout California. In February, the California State Water Board identified 452 wells in use in 206 community systems that are impacted by nitrates.

And thousands of farm communities across the U.S. struggle with the cost of providing safe drinking water. For example, a water system in Decatur, Illinois costs about 8 million dollars, with additional annual operating expenses of two- to four hundred thousand dollars—to serve its population of 76,000. The problem is international as well. A 2011 nitrogen assessment put the cost of European nitrogen pollution at 100 billion dollars a year.

For more information, click here.

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The patient in the case report (let's call him Tom) was 54 and in good health. For two days in May, he felt unwell and was too weak to get out of bed. When his family finally brought him to the hospital, doctors found that he had a fever and signs of a severe infection, or sepsis. He tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection. In addition to symptoms of COVID-19, he was also too weak to move his legs.

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We are neurologists specializing in intensive care and leading studies related to neurological complications from COVID-19. Given the occurrence of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in prior pandemics with other corona viruses like SARS and MERS, we are investigating a possible link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19 and tracking published reports to see if there is any link between Guillain-Barre Syndrome and COVID-19.

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What Is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome occurs when the body's own immune system attacks and injures the nerves outside of the spinal cord or brain – the peripheral nervous system. Most commonly, the injury involves the protective sheath, or myelin, that wraps nerves and is essential to nerve function.

Without the myelin sheath, signals that go through a nerve are slowed or lost, which causes the nerve to malfunction.

To diagnose Guillain-Barre Syndrome, neurologists perform a detailed neurological exam. Due to the nerve injury, patients often may have loss of reflexes on examination. Doctors often need to perform a lumbar puncture, otherwise known as spinal tap, to sample spinal fluid and look for signs of inflammation and abnormal antibodies.

Studies have shown that giving patients an infusion of antibodies derived from donated blood or plasma exchange – a process that cleans patients' blood of harmful antibodies - can speed up recovery. A very small subset of patients may need these therapies long-term.

The majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients improve within a few weeks and eventually can make a full recovery. However, some patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome have lingering symptoms including weakness and abnormal sensations in arms and/or legs; rarely patients may be bedridden or disabled long-term.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome and Pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps across the globe, many neurologic specialists have been on the lookout for potentially serious nervous system complications such as Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Though Guillain-Barre Syndrome is rare, it is well known to emerge following bacterial infections, such as Campylobacter jejuni, a common cause of food poisoning, and a multitude of viral infections including the flu virus, Zika virus and other coronaviruses.

Studies showed an increase in Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases following the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, suggesting a possible connection. The presumed cause for this link is that the body's own immune response to fight the infection turns on itself and attacks the peripheral nerves. This is called an "autoimmune" condition. When a pandemic affects as many people as our current COVID-19 crisis, even a rare complication can become a significant public health problem. That is especially true for one that causes neurological dysfunction where the recovery takes a long time and may be incomplete.

The first reports of Guillain-Barre Syndrome in COVID-19 pandemic originated from Italy, Spain and China, where the pandemic surged before the U.S. crisis.

Though there is clear clinical suspicion that COVID-19 can lead to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, many important questions remain. What are the chances that someone gets Guillain-Barre Syndrome during or following a COVID-19 infection? Does Guillain-Barre Syndrome happen more often in those who have been infected with COVID-19 compared to other types of infections, such as the flu?

The only way to get answers is through a prospective study where doctors perform systematic surveillance and collect data on a large group of patients. There are ongoing large research consortia hard at work to figure out answers to these questions.

Understanding the Association Between COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre Syndrome

While large research studies are underway, overall it appears that Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare but serious phenomenon possibly linked to COVID-19. Given that more than 10.7 million cases have been reported for COVID-19, there have been 10 reported cases of COVID-19 patients with Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far – only two reported cases in the U.S., five in Italy, two cases in Iran and one from Wuhan, China.

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Due to the pandemic and infection-containment considerations, diagnostic tests, such as a nerve conduction study that used to be routine for patients with suspected Guillain-Barre Syndrome, are more difficult to do. In both U.S. cases, the initial diagnosis and treatment were all based on clinical examination by a neurological experts rather than any tests. Both patients survived but with significant residual weakness at the time these case reports came out, but that is not uncommon for Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients. The road to recovery may sometimes be long, but many patients can make a full recovery with time.

Though the reported cases of Guillain-Barre Syndrome so far all have severe symptoms, this is not uncommon in a pandemic situation where the less sick patients may stay home and not present for medical care for fear of being exposed to the virus. This, plus the limited COVID-19 testing capability across the U.S., may skew our current detection of Guillain-Barre Syndrome cases toward the sicker patients who have to go to a hospital. In general, the majority of Guillain-Barre Syndrome patients do recover, given enough time. We do not yet know whether this is true for COVID-19-related cases at this stage of the pandemic. We and colleagues around the world are working around the clock to find answers to these critical questions.

Sherry H-Y. Chou is an Associate Professor of Critical Care Medicine, Neurology, and Neurosurgery, University of Pittsburgh.

Aarti Sarwal is an Associate Professor, Neurology, Wake Forest University.

Neha S. Dangayach is an Assistant Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Disclosure statement: Sherry H-Y. Chou receives funding from The University of Pittsburgh Clinical Translational Science Institute (CTSI), the National Institute of Health, and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Dean's Faculty Advancement Award. Sherry H-Y. Chou is a member of Board of Directors for the Neurocritical Care Society. Neha S. Dangayach receives funding from the Bee Foundation, the Friedman Brain Institute, the Neurocritical Care Society, InCHIP-UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Seed Grant. She is faculty for emcrit.org and for AiSinai. Aarti Sarwal does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.


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"We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's ambition," said Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, a member of the Biden-Sanders Climate Task Force. "But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to act at the scale of the climate crisis."

The climate panel—co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and former Secretary of State John Kerry—recommended that the Democratic Party commit to "eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035," massively expanding investments in clean energy sources, and "achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for all new buildings by 2030."

In a series of tweets Wednesday night, Ocasio-Cortez—the lead sponsor of the House Green New Deal resolution—noted that the Climate Task Force "shaved 15 years off Biden's previous target for 100% clean energy."

"Of course, like in any collaborative effort, there are areas of negotiation and compromise," said the New York Democrat. "But I do believe that the Climate Task Force effort meaningfully and substantively improved Biden's positions."

 

The 110 pages of policy recommendations from the six eight-person Unity Task Forces on education, the economy, criminal justice, immigration, climate change, and healthcare are aimed at shaping negotiations over the 2020 Democratic platform at the party's convention next month.

Sanders said that while the "end result isn't what I or my supporters would've written alone, the task forces have created a good policy blueprint that will move this country in a much-needed progressive direction and substantially improve the lives of working families throughout our country."

"I look forward to working with Vice President Biden to help him win this campaign," the Vermont senator added, "and to move this country forward toward economic, racial, social, and environmental justice."

Biden, for his part, applauded the task forces "for helping build a bold, transformative platform for our party and for our country."

"I am deeply grateful to Bernie Sanders for working with us to unite our party and deliver real, lasting change for generations to come," said the former vice president.

On the life-or-death matter of reforming America's dysfunctional private health insurance system—a subject on which Sanders and Biden clashed repeatedly throughout the Democratic primary process—the Unity Task Force affirmed healthcare as "a right" but did not embrace Medicare for All, the signature policy plank of the Vermont senator's presidential bid.

Instead, the panel recommended building on the Affordable Care Act by establishing a public option, investing in community health centers, and lowering prescription drug costs by allowing the federal government to negotiate prices. The task force also endorsed making all Covid-19 testing, treatments, and potential vaccines free and expanding Medicaid for the duration of the pandemic.

"It has always been a crisis that tens of millions of Americans have no or inadequate health insurance—but in a pandemic, it's potentially catastrophic for public health," the task force wrote.

Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a former Michigan gubernatorial candidate and Sanders-appointed member of the Healthcare Task Force, said that despite major disagreements, the panel "came to recommendations that will yield one of the most progressive Democratic campaign platforms in history—though we have further yet to go."

 

Observers and advocacy groups also applauded the Unity Task Forces for recommending the creation of a postal banking system, endorsing a ban on for-profit charter schools, ending the use of private prisons, and imposing a 100-day moratorium on deportations "while conducting a full-scale study on current practices to develop recommendations for transforming enforcement policies and practices at ICE and CBP."

Marisa Franco, director of immigrant rights group Mijente, said in a statement that "going into these task force negotiations, we knew we were going to have to push Biden past his comfort zone, both to reconcile with past offenses and to carve a new path forward."

"That is exactly what we did, unapologetically," said Franco, a member of the Immigration Task Force. "For years, Mijente, along with the broader immigrant rights movement, has fought to reshape the narrative around immigration towards racial justice and to focus these very demands. We expect Biden and the Democratic Party to implement them in their entirety."

"There is no going back," Franco added. "Not an inch, not a step. We must only move forward from here."

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.