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
Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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