How Citizen Scientists Could Help Rescue Public Health From Polluters
By Erica Cirino
In the early 2000s, residents of a small, Rust Belt city called Tonawanda, New York, began noticing something strange: Over the years, it seemed, an increasing number of people were getting sick — primarily with cancer.
Tonawanda's a highly industrial city with more than 50 polluting facilities situated within a three-mile radius. It was common for the air to feel dense and to smell like gasoline. Residents wondered what toxic chemicals might be in the air and if they were making them sick.
Seeking to answer that question, in 2005 a small group of concerned residents took to their streets armed with five-gallon buckets, plastic baggies, plastic hoses and a handheld vacuum to suck out samples from the heavy, foul-smelling air.
Lab testing confirmed their fears: Air samples they'd taken near a plant called Tonawanda Coke, which produced a high-carbon form of coal, contained extremely high levels of industrial toxins, including benzene — a hydrocarbon linked to cancers, infertility, growth problems and an array of blood diseases. It was present in the air at a rate of 25 times what the federal government estimates an average American is exposed to in a lifetime.
The group's work resulted in a legal investigation, a federal lawsuit and the eventual shutdown of Tonawanda Coke in 2018. It was a major victory spurred by a small, DIY investigation. But the success didn't end there. It led to a first-of-its-kind "chemical fingerprinting" study that could have far-reaching impacts to hold polluters accountable and even prevent towns like Tonawanda from becoming toxic dumping grounds in the future.
The Tonawanda Coke plant in Tonawanda, NY.
EPA / Google Earth
In 2013 a judge found Tonawanda Coke guilty of violating 11 counts of the Clean Air Act and three counts of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The company was ordered in 2014 to pay a $12.5 million penalty plus $12.2 million for community health and environmental research that could reveal the full extent of the factory's pollution legacy — the first time in history such a legal decision has ever been made.
Today the environmental component of that court-ordered research — a $711,000 soil project that involves testing for specific chemical signatures in soil to map areas that have been exposed to the highest levels of air pollution — is in its final phase, with its results to be made public later this year.
Residents will then learn the extent of the pollution in the region caused by the coke plant. But much has already been accomplished thanks to the continued work of local residents, who have assumed "citizen scientist" roles in collecting soil samples for study. While chemical fingerprinting has been done before to find polluters, this is the first federally court-ordered project funded by a convicted party and designed by local scientists to uncover the extent of an industrial polluter's impacts on its community by testing chemical fingerprints with the help of citizen scientists.
Experts believe this kind of community-driven project is a cost-effective way to understand long-term pollution legacies from companies like Tonawanda Coke and also to identify additional polluted areas that need to be cleaned up.
"Soil sampling is a surrogate for historic air pollution, especially for the most carcinogenic compounds emitted by industrial plants," said Joseph Gardella Jr., State University of New York at Buffalo chemistry professor and research leader. "Many pollutants in the air end up depositing themselves in soil, providing us with a record of what factories have historically been pouring out, what people have been breathing in and what needs to be cleaned up now."
The scientific process of developing a specific chemical fingerprint and tracing it back to a specific source, in this case Tonawanda Coke, is known as "source apportionment." Each factory releases its own specific mixture of pollutants. They perform some kind of combustion process or processes, and so they release chemicals specific to those processes belonging to a class of cancer-causing chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Burning cigarettes, running vehicles, cooking on a charcoal grill and making a bonfire also releases PAHs — albeit in much smaller amounts. Different types of combustion — including the production of coke, which comes from heating coal at high temperatures — release different types of PAHs and other associated health-harming chemicals, such as particulate matter, sulfur and carbon dioxide.
A soil sample is taken in 2018 to test for pollutants.
Douglas Levere / University at Buffalo
In 2017, while Tonawanda Coke was still running some of its coke ovens, Gardella and his team took air and soil samples on site, as well as a sample of the coke the plant produced, to gather data that could be used to develop a chemical fingerprint unique to the factory. Then they held community meetings where they called on the public for help collecting soil samples from their properties and taught them how to collect samples that could be used for scientific analysis.
In total residents collected 182 soil samples, and Gardella's team also analyzed public data on contaminants from 65 toxic release sites in their test area in northwestern Erie County, New York. The scientists sent both the air and soil samples to independent laboratory ALS Environmental to be analyzed for 169 different industrial chemicals. The results?
"On the Tonawanda Coke property, soil samples had levels of PAHs that were through the roof," said Gardella. "I had never seen anything this contaminated before, and I've seen some pretty contaminated sites."
Analysis of the resident-collected soil samples also revealed high levels of pollution, specifically on properties immediately surrounding the plant; as well as properties east, northeast and west of the plant. Chemicals found in soil samples included PAHs, PCBs, cyanide and heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic. Some of the residential samples in the worst polluted areas had levels of toxic chemicals that exceeded federal and state guidelines that would necessitate a cleanup.
Mapping the Risks
Understanding the kind of pollutants in the area was just the first step. Next, to understand whether or not the pollutants on residential properties definitely came from Tonawanda Coke and not another industrial polluter, researchers need to do more testing. In 2018 the scientists asked residents to take 130 more samples within the most highly polluted areas and began the process of determining source apportionment — matching the chemical fingerprint.
"I am currently building a library of chemical standards from pollutants found on the Tonawanda Coke property so I know what chemicals we are looking for and what its unique chemical fingerprint should look like," said Kaitlin Ordiway, a State University of New York at Buffalo graduate student now working on the source apportionment component of the study.
Because Tonawanda was the only coke plant in this highly industrial area of New York, Ordiway says she's using advanced chemical tests to look specifically for PAHs associated with coke production. These include anthracene, phenanthrene, benzo(a)pyrene and benzo(g,h,i)perylene. PAHs are more complex versions of one of the simplest aromatic hydrocarbons, benzene, a very common — and toxic —emission from industries of all kinds.
"The PAHs I'm looking for have a more complex molecular structure than benzene, and so they can be used to develop a more detailed and accurate fingerprint," Ordiway said.
Chemical fingerprinting and the methods used by the University at Buffalo team have been widely used to uncover sources of industrial pollution, according to Paul Boehm, corporate vice president and principal scientist at Exponent, an engineering and scientific consulting firm. This includes cases for all kinds of pollution, he says, such as from the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills.
He adds that "what makes or breaks such investigations" includes the quantity and quality of samples used to establish the fingerprints, considerations of all other possible chemical sources in the area including natural "background" levels of PAHs, the techniques used to analyze the data, and most importantly, the experience and skills of the scientists who are analyzing and interpreting the data.
Gardella and his team say that, after their fingerprinting process is finished, they'll use GIS technology to develop contamination maps with their data that will inform environmental agencies about the exact location of various contaminants. Specifically, they'll determine where a cleanup of toxic soil might be necessary and whether or not Tonawanda Coke is responsible for it or if another polluter is to blame and should be investigated. Gardella says he and his team expect to announce the results in later 2019.
Chemical fingerprinting research and map-making can be time consuming, Gardella says, but when citizen scientists are used to help gather data, it's not very expensive. He believes the process should be used routinely by state and federal environmental agencies to identify polluters and polluted areas instead of waiting for a court order, as in the case of Tonawanda. Because the technology to perform source apportionment already exists and the testing methods are relatively inexpensive, environmental agencies just have to develop the capacity and training to carry it out, he says.
"When that happens, this could become proactive work rather than retrospective work, resulting in better pollution monitoring across the country and healthier lives for people living in areas affected by industrial pollution," Gardella said.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Independence Day weekend is a busy time for coastal communities as people flock to the beaches to soak up the sun during the summer holiday. This year is different. Some of the country's most popular beach destinations in Florida and California have decided to close their beaches to stop the surge in coronavirus cases.
- The U.S. Isn't in a Second Wave of Coronavirus – The First Wave ... ›
- COVID-19 Masks Are Polluting Beaches and Oceans - EcoWatch ›
- No Social Distancing or Mask Requirement at Trump's Mt ... ›
- Trump's Fireworks Show at Mt. Rushmore Is a Dangerous Idea, Fire ... ›
For some combat veterans, the Fourth of July is not a time to celebrate the independence of the country they love. Instead, the holiday is a terrifying ordeal. That's because the noise of fireworks – loud, sudden, and reminiscent of war – rocks their nervous system. Daily fireworks in many U.S. cities in recent weeks have no doubt been interfering with the sleep and peace of mind of thousands of veterans.
What Is PTSD?<p><a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">PTSD</a> can occur when someone is exposed to extreme exposure traumatic experience. Typically, the trauma involves a threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Along with war veterans, it happens to refugees; to victims of gun violence, rape and other physical assaults; and to survivors of car accidents and natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes.</p><p>PTSD can also happen by witnessing trauma or its aftermath, often the case with <a href="https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd" target="_blank">first responders</a> and <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-many-faces-anxiety-and-trauma/202006/invisible-wounds-the-frontline-heroes" target="_blank">front-line workers</a>.</p><p>All this adds up to tens of millions of Americans. Up to 30% of combat veterans and first responders, and 8% of civilians, <a href="https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/epidemiology.asp" target="_blank">fulfill the diagnostic criteria for PTSD</a>. And that criteria is not easily met: symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive trauma memories, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of reminders of trauma, negative emotions, and what we call "hyperarousal symptoms."</p>
Fireworks Can Trigger Flashbacks<p>Hyperarousal, a core component of PTSD, occurs when a person is hyper-alert to any sign of threat – constantly on edge, easily startled and continuously screening the environment.</p><p>Imagine, for instance, stepping down the stairs in the dark after hearing a noise; you're worried an intruder might be downstairs. Then a totally unpredictable loud sound explodes right outside your window.</p><p>For people with PTSD, that sound – reminiscent of gunfire, a thunderstorm or a car crash – <a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">can cause</a> a panic attack or trigger flashbacks, a sensory experience that makes it seem as if the old trauma is happening here and now. Flashbacks can be so severe that combat veterans may suddenly drop to the ground, the same way they would when an explosion took place in combat. Later, the experience can trigger nightmares, insomnia or worsening of other PTSD symptoms.</p><p>Those of us who set off fireworks need to ask ourselves: Are those few minutes of fun worth the hours, days, or weeks of torment that will begin for some of our friends and neighbors – including many who put their lives on the line to protect us?</p>
Who Else Is Affected?<p>Millions of others, though not diagnosed with PTSD, may similarly be affected by fireworks. <a href="https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics" target="_blank">One in five Americans</a> have an anxiety disorder, many with symptoms of hyperarousal. Also impacted are those with autism or developmental disabilities; they find it difficult to cope with the noise, or just the drastic change from life routines. Then there are people who have to work, holiday or not: nurses, physicians and first responders, who have to be up at 4 a.m. for a 30-hour shift.</p><h3>How to Reduce the Negative Impact</h3><p>There are ways to reduce how fireworks affect others:</p><ul><li>For those with PTSD, the unexpected nature of fireworks is probably the worst part. So at least make it as predictable as possible. Do it in designated areas during designated times. Don't explode one, for instance, two hours after the designated time window. And avoid setting them off <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/04/fireworks-ptsd-fourth-of-july-veterans-shooting-survivors" target="_blank">on the 3rd</a>. People are less prepared then.</li><li>If you're aware that a veteran or trauma survivor lives in the neighborhood, move the noise as far as possible from their home and give them prior warning. Consider putting a sign in your front yard noting the time you'll set the fireworks.</li><li>Remember, it doesn't have to be super loud to make it fun. Consider using <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/504964-its-time-for-silent-fireworks" target="_blank">silent fireworks</a>. And you don't have to be the one who lights the fireworks. Simply enjoy watching while your city or township does it safely.</li></ul>
- 4 Ways Acupuncture Helps Restore Balance to the Body - EcoWatch ›
- Why Can't Veterans Get Medical Marijiuana for PTSD When People ... ›
Koala populations across parts of Australia are on track to become extinct before 2050 unless "urgent government intervention" occurs, warns a year-long inquiry into Australia's "most loved animal." The report published by the Parliament of New South Wales (NSW) paints a "stark and depressing snapshot" of koalas in Australia's southeastern state.
- First Koalas Rescued From Bushfires Returned to the Wild - EcoWatch ›
- Koalas Found 'Massacred' at Logging Site - EcoWatch ›
- Koalas Become 'Functionally Extinct' in Australia With Just 80000 Left ›
- Koalas Face Extinction Threat After Wildfires: New Report - EcoWatch ›
By Jeff Berardelli
For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.
International Effort to Evaluate Climate Models<p>For the past 25 years the international community has been evaluating and comparing the world's most sophisticated climate models produced by various teams at universities, research centers, and government agencies. The effort is organized by the World Climate Research Programme under the United Nations World Meteorological Organization.</p><p>Climate models are complicated computer programs composed of millions of lines of code that calculate the physical properties and interactions between the main climate forces like the atmosphere, oceans, and solar input. But models also go a lot further, incorporating other systems like ice sheets, forests, and the biosphere, to name a few. The models are then used to simulate the real-world climate system and project how certain changes, like added pollution or land-use changes, will alter the climate.</p><p>Every few years there is a new comprehensive international evaluation called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). In the sixth such effort, known as CMIP6 and now under way, experts are reviewing about 100 models.</p><p>Information gleaned from this effort will act as a scientific foundation for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next major assessment report, scheduled for release in 2021. The goal of the report – the sixth in 30 years – is to inform the international community about how much the climate has changed, and, importantly, how much change can be expected in coming decades.</p>
A Conundrum Emerges<p>Over the past year, the CMIP6 collection of models being reviewed threw researchers an unexpected curveball: a significant number of the climate model runs showed substantially more global warming than previous model versions had projected. If accurate, the international climate goals would be nearly impossible to achieve, and there would be significantly more extreme impacts worldwide.</p><p>A foundational experiment in every report addresses "sensitivity": If you double levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) that were in the air before the Industrial Revolution, how much warming do the models show? This doubling is not expected for a few more decades, but it is a quick way to communicate the critical role of greenhouse gases in changing the climate.</p><p>The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 35% since the 1800s because of the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, global temperatures have already increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.</p><p>In the first IPCC assessment report, published in 1990, the answer to that question about the impact of doubling carbon dioxide gave a fairly wide range of results – between 2.7-8 degrees F of global warming. Since then, four more assessments issued six to seven years apart reached nearly the exact same conclusion on sensitivity.</p><p>But that sensitivity may, for the first time, change significantly in next year's assessment. Why? Because starting last year, numerous models in the CMIP6 collection displayed even bigger spikes in temperature upon doubling of CO2 concentrations. We're in serious trouble if the climate sensitivity falls in the mid or upper range of the previous assessments. But if the new, higher estimates are correct, the impacts on civilization would be catastrophic.</p>
In the above CarbonBrief interactive visualization, the bars offer a comparison in the range of sensitivity in the CMIP5 models (gray) and CMIP6 models (blue).
New and Encouraging Evidence Is Emerging<p>At first, scientists were uncertain whether the new model runs were on to something, so the international modeling community dug in to produce multiple studies. The results are not yet conclusive, but a gradual collective sigh of relief seems to be materializing.</p><p>"Evidence is emerging from multiple directions that the models which show the greatest warming in the CMIP6 ensemble are likely too warm," explains Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.</p><p>For example, <a href="https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2020-23/" target="_blank">a study</a> released April 28 evaluated the past performance of the models making up the CMIP6 ensemble. The team assigned weights to each model based upon historical performance of their warming projections, weighing the poorer performing models less. By doing so, both the mean warming and the range of warming scenarios in the CMIP6 ensemble decreased, meaning the warmest models were the ones with weaker historical performance. This result supports a finding that a subset of the models are too warm.</p><p>That conclusion is supported by another new study evaluating one particular model – the Community Earth System Model (CESM2) – that showed greater warming. Using that model, the researchers simulated the climate in the early Eocene era, about 50 million years ago, when rainforests thrived in the Arctic and Antarctic. The CESM2 simulated a historical climate that seems way too warm compared with what is known about that era from geological data, indicating that the model is likely also too warm in its future projections.</p><p>Two other recent studies of the CMIP6 models being evaluated use clever analysis methods to <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2019-86/&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNHYwFB-1KqndGfJ4sXdrrm9DpbLaQ" target="_blank">narrow the range</a> of future warming projections and also <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/12/eaaz9549&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNEhKY1YZ19qgjSZ_hJM14JmzqXOXw" target="_blank">reduce the projected warming</a> of the CMIP6 models by 10 to 15%.</p><p>Through the intensive research spurred by the CMIP6 climate-sensitivity curveball, scientists have been able to turn a confounding challenge into a confidence builder, providing even greater certainty than they had before in both the abilities of the climate science community and in the computer models used. Moreover, the experience has helped unearth uncertainties remaining in the modeling process.</p><p>Experts conclude much of this uncertainty probably lies in the complexity of clouds. "We have been looking as a community at why the models with greater warming are doing what they are doing – and it's tied to cloud feedbacks in the southern mid-latitudes mostly," explains Schmidt.</p><p>In fact, <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/26/eaba1981" target="_blank">a new study</a> addressing the increased sensitivity was published in Science Advances stating, "Cloud feedbacks and cloud-aerosol interactions are the most likely contributors to the high values and increased range of ECS [sensitivity] in CMIP6."</p>
Understanding the Complexity of Clouds<p>It's long been known in climate modeling circles that cloud processes and interactions are a potential weak link for climate modeling. That reality has been brought front and center by the urgent challenges posed during this CMIP6 evaluation period, but the current evaluation of models also provides an opportunity for discovery and improvement.</p><p>Cloud complexity comes from the reality that clouds have a multitude of sizes, altitudes, and textures. Some clouds cool Earth by providing shade, reflecting sunlight back into space. Others act like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the world.</p><p>Given that about <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/icesat_light.html" target="_blank">70% of the globe</a> is covered by clouds at any given time, it's no surprise that they play an integral role in regulating the climate. The challenge is to figure out which types of clouds will increase, which will decrease, and what the net effect will be on cooling or warming as the climate changes.</p><p><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0310-1" target="_blank">One study</a> last year reached an alarming conclusion: Left unchecked, the release of CO2 into the atmosphere may lead to a tipping point where shallow low clouds disappear – leading to runaway, catastrophic warming of nearly 15 degrees F. While scientists see that outcome as only a remote possibility, it drives home the urgent need to better understand clouds.</p><p>"We have a saying at NOAA: It isn't rocket science – it's much, much harder than that," quips Dr. Chris Fairall, ATOMIC's lead investigator. "One of the major problems for modeling is there is not clean separation of scales." The photo below is one that Fairall took from the NOAA P-3 aircraft.</p>
Investigating the Secrets of Clouds<p>To address the urgent question about the dynamics and role of clouds in a warming world, NOAA and European partners launched their ongoing research effort unprecedented in scale. The U.S. contribution, ATOMIC – short for Atlantic Tradewind Ocean-Atmosphere Mesoscale Interaction Campaign – is an international science mission that was featured recently on "<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/video/study-aims-to-examine-links-between-climate-change-and-clouds/" target="_blank">CBS This Morning: Saturday</a>."</p>
- New Climate Study: Most Severe Warming Projections Are Now the ... ›
- 7 of the Best New Documentaries About Global Warming - EcoWatch ›
- What's in a Name? Global Warming vs. Climate Change in the Eyes ... ›
To hear many journalists tell it, the spring of 2020 has brought a series of extraordinary revelations. Look at what the nation has learned: That our health-care system was not remotely up to the challenge of a deadly pandemic. That our economic safety net was largely nonexistent. That our vulnerability to disease and death was directly tied to our race and where we live. That our political leadership sowed misinformation that left people dead. That systemic racism and the killing of Black people by police is undiminished, despite decades of protest and so many Black lives lost.
- Climate Crisis Brings India's Worst Locust Invasion in Decades ... ›
- Climate Crisis Made Australia's Historic Wildfires at Least 30% More ... ›
- 4 Climate Crisis Solutions No One Is Talking About - EcoWatch ›
- Top Government Scientist Transferred After Questioning Trump ... ›
- Trump Admin Manipulated Wildfire Science to Encourage Logging ... ›
- NOAA Officials Backed Trump's False Dorian Claims Under Threat ... ›
- Coronavirus and the Terrifying Muzzling of Public Health Experts ... ›
- 'Science Under Siege' From Trump Admin: New Report Warns We ... ›
More than 350 elephants have died in Botswana since May, and no one knows why.
- Botswana Auctions Off First Licenses to Kill Elephants Since Ending ... ›
- 'Heartbreaking' Vulture Poisoning in South Africa Raises Alarm ... ›