For those who have dedicated their lives to heal and protect the planet, how do you honor that sacrifice after death? This is a question that has been on the minds of environmental activists for decades. Both cremations and traditional burials cause environmental damage that is not easy to reconcile. However, that is all changing with Recompose, a Seattle company that has recently opened the nation's first human composting funeral home, according to the Seattle Times.
Recompose offers an innovative funeral service that turns human remains into healthy soil. This service gives Washington state and surrounding residents a chance to make a positive environmental change through their death as well as their life.
In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee passed a bill legalizing composting as a form of human burial. This radical legislation — the first of its kind in the nation — was first inspired by Recompose's founder Katrina Spade and her idea for composting as an eco-conscious burial process. Spade and her neighbor Senator Jamie Pedersen pushed for the bill ardently, and in 2019 were finally successful.
Nearly a decade of research and development went into the founding of Recompose. Their website explains, recomposition "uses the process of 'natural organic reduction' to gently convert human remains into soil." Those kept at the Recompose funeral home are given an optional service and are then placed in mausoleum-like chambers where the composting process begins.
Katrina Spade, like many environmental activists, was frustrated with the limited options for environmentally friendly burial services. Due to the embalming process that most funeral homes use, burial sites are a major source of groundwater pollution. One of the most common embalming chemicals, formaldehyde, is classified as a carcinogen. Prior to the 2019 bill, the only legal and eco-friendly burial options were natural burial sites. There are only 160 of these sites in the entire country, so for those who don't have access to one of those, eco-friendly options are non-existent.
Now, those in the Pacific Northwest have an option that saves an entire metric ton of CO2 in their burial process. While body pickup is only available in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, the facility is accepting clients throughout the Northwest.
The entire service, including ceremony, obituary, death certificate, and transformation, is $5,500. After the composting process is complete, family members can choose to keep the soil or donate it to the Bells Mountain conservation forest. This forest restoration project welcomes family members to visit and see the real impact their loved one has made on the local environment.
Charlotte Bontrager, who was one of the first to take a deceased family member to Recompose, said about the process, "My mom was a very humble, loving person and would not want any kind of spotlight. But she'd be thrilled to know she was among this first group of pioneers."
Because of Katrina Spade and the Washington legislature's hard work, many more will have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the Earth in their passing. To learn more about the program and services, you can visit their website.
By Tara Lohan
A familiar scene has returned to California: drought. Two counties are currently under emergency declarations, and the rest of the state could follow.
It was only four years ago when a winter of torrential rain finally wrestled the state out of its last major drought, which had dragged on for five years and left thousands of domestic wells coughing up dust.
That drinking-water crisis made national headlines and helped shine a light on another long-simmering water crisis in California: More than 300 communities have chronically unsafe drinking water containing contaminants that can come with serious health consequences, including cancer. The areas hardest hit are mostly small, agricultural communities in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, which are predominantly Latino and are often also places classified by the state as "disadvantaged." Unsafe water in these communities adds to a list of health and economic burdens made worse by the ongoing pandemic.
California took a step toward addressing the problem back in 2012 when it passed the country's first state law declaring the human right to water. That was followed by a 2019 bill to help meet that mandate by establishing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
But just how much cash is needed to address the problem?
The answer, we now know, is about $10 billion, according to a new "needs assessment" from state agencies and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation that provides a detailed look at the scope of the problem and cost of solutions.
"The study is unique in that it's the first — certainly for California, but I think also for any state — that looks across every source for drinking water purposes that can be quantified," says Gregory Pierce, the study's principal investigator and an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA. This includes all public water systems regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as domestic wells and "state smalls" with fewer than 15 connections.
"I think this takes us many steps forward to better understanding where we need additional funding and what areas we should be focusing on in terms of proactively addressing at-risk systems," says Michael Clairborne, directing attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works on water-equity issues in the state. "It also demonstrates that there's still a real need for additional infrastructure funding for drinking water."
Understanding the Problem
So how bad is it?
The causes of the state's drinking water woes are varied — and worrisome. Nitrate, mostly from farms and dairies, is the costliest water contaminant, the study found. Nitrates are especially dangerous for infants, and can cause lethargy, dizziness and even death. Other groundwater contaminants include bacteria from leaking septic systems and uranium, which can cause kidney damage. Several other contaminants have been linked to cancers, including the industrial pollutant chromium-6, the pesticide 1,2,3-trichloropropane, and human-made and naturally-occurring sources of arsenic.
Nitrate pollution from agricultural operations poses a health threat in Calif. Tara Lohan
Contamination is also widespread.
The study looked at 2,779 public water systems across the state and evaluated their water quality, affordability, accessibility, and technical and financial capacity. It found that 326 public water systems qualified as "human right to water communities" — the ones where water systems are consistently failing to provide affordable, safe drinking water.
For anyone tracking this issue (or living in these communities), that part wasn't news.
But the report also found that another 617 public water systems are at risk of failing. Virtually every county in the state had at least one system on this list, but those with the highest numbers were in rural areas with large numbers of smaller water systems, including Tulare, Fresno, Monterey and Kern counties.
"What's really novel is that it also tries to comprehensively assess where our water quality is likely to fail next if nothing is done to prevent it," says Pierce.
And that should be a big wake-up call.
"This is the next logical step to try to get a handle on the drinking-water crisis in the state," says Clairborne. "We really have to proactively address these high-risk systems before they fail, provide them the support they need, and potentially consolidate high-risk systems with nearby systems to improve sustainability."
The research also found that almost one third of domestic wells (78,000) are at high risk of failure, as are half of California's 1,236 state small systems.
And it highlighted another critical issue, too: money.
"The report reinforced what we unfortunately already know too well — that California is facing a major water affordability crisis," says Jonathan Nelson, policy director of the Community Water Center. "Nearly 1 in 3 water systems were identified either as having water rates that were higher than what is deemed affordable for families or high levels of water shutoffs."
Unsafe drinking water comes with an additional economic burden: Many families are also forced to spend more money on bottled water, with some spending as much as 10% of their monthly income on water, according to the Community Water Center.
One of the main reasons for persistently unsafe water has to do with scale: Larger water systems have more resources to fund treatment technologies, while small systems often lack the resources to meet water-quality challenges.
A new chromium-6 treatment plant in Willow, Calif. Florence Low / California Department of Water Resources
Getting those struggling water systems more funding to upgrade their water-treatment systems can help. But those technologies need ongoing maintenance, and often the most cost-effective measure is consolidation. Small water systems or homes on domestic wells can be connected to larger systems that can better treat contaminated water sources.
Historically the state hasn't been that good at consolidation because many larger water providers didn't want to take on small, failing systems. But in 2015, Senate Bill 88 granted the California State Water Resources Control Board authority to mandate consolidation for failing water systems. Now another bill, Senate Bill 403, would expand that to include systems at risk of failure.
"That would help to address the needs of those nearly 620 at-risk water systems, as well as state small systems and domestic wells," says Clairborne. "The state has made some progress in the last few years, with several hundred consolidations since 2015, compared to fewer than 200 for the 40 years prior."
When it comes to addressing the affordability crisis, Nelson says the state legislature can take action to establish a water rate assistance fund, which is especially important now because "California families are carrying $1 billion in pandemic-caused water debt," he says.
The report also found that a broader, more regional look at potential solutions could cut costs. In one example outlined in the study, if 85 small water systems in Monterey County are incorporated into a nearby larger system, the cost for each new connection falls from $39,000 to $7,000.
"If we can prioritize those [regional solutions], the cost could come down considerably, and our infrastructure would be much more integrated," says Pierce.
Finding the Money
Bringing costs down will be key, as the price tag for implementing interim and long-term solutions for water systems and domestic wells that need assistance over the next five years is upwards of $10 billion. Some efforts are already underway to address paying for that, with allocations from the state and contributions from local governments, but that still leaves an estimated $4.6 billion shortfall, according to the report.
"Unless addressed, this funding gap will perpetuate the divide between those who have safe water in California and those who don't," says Nelson.
More money is needed from either the federal or state government, says Pierce. And even though the price tag seems steep, he says, the costs of not fixing the problems will be higher in the long run and bring a lot more suffering to communities.
Some California residents rely on expensive bottled water because their tap water is unsafe. Tara Lohan
"Unsafe water can not only cause physical health impacts, it can also cause a lot of direct affordability impacts and mental health stressors on people," says Pierce. "One way or the other society pays for this and it's better to invest up front — from a human right and equity standpoint, and also from an economic one."
One recent bright spot is the potential for more spending at the national level, with the Biden administration's current discussions around a major infrastructure bill in Congress.
That could represent a paradigm change. "The federal government's role in funding drinking water infrastructure has dropped dramatically since the 1970s compared to other types of infrastructure," says Pierce.
Even if such investments do come from Washington, though, they won't solve all of California's water problems.
"I hope it can be a substantial amount of what we need, but I would be very surprised to see it meet the whole need," he says. "I think that much of what would be allotted to California would likely go to larger systems for broader infrastructure investments and drought-related resilience."
Additionally, a lot of the bill's equity focus is on lead. "Which I don't disagree with, but California doesn't have nearly as big of a lead problem in drinking water as many other states," he adds.
The fact that California has already done the work to understand its drinking-water problems, identify solutions and tally the costs can make the process of getting federal dollars easier — and that could also help inspire other states to better quantify their water needs.
"I do think you'll see more states do this, but it was a considerable effort: The water board basically created a new unit with multiple staff to do this work," says Pierce. "But most of the data was the water board's own, so I think a lot of this could be done by other states without too much effort, if they can learn from what was done here and maybe even enhance that."
Money to shore up water systems, improve affordability and ensure clean water for all residents also comes with a ripple effect of benefits.
"Investments in water projects can help create drought and climate resiliency," says Nelson. "And water investments can be an engine of equitable economic growth, creating good jobs in communities that need them. We have a tremendous opportunity to both address this public health crisis and help our economy recover at the same time."
Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
Emails Reveal: U.S. Officials Sided With Agrochemical Giant Bayer to Overturn Mexico's Glyphosate Ban
By Kenny Stancil
While Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has given farmers in the country a 2024 deadline to stop using glyphosate, The Guardian reported Tuesday that agrochemical company Bayer, industry lobbyist CropLife America, and U.S. officials have been pressuring Mexico's government to drop its proposed ban on the carcinogenic pesticide.
The corporate and U.S.-backed attempt to coerce Mexico into maintaining its glyphosate imports past 2024 has unfolded, as journalist Carey Gillam detailed in the newspaper, "over the last 18 months, a period in which Bayer was negotiating an $11 billion settlement of legal claims brought by people in the U.S. who say they developed non-Hodgkin lymphoma due to exposure" to glyphosate-based products, such as Roundup.
Roundup, one of the world's mostly widely-used herbicides, was created by Monsanto which was acquired by Bayer in 2018.
According to The Guardian, which obtained internal documents via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), "The pressure on Mexico is similar to actions Bayer and chemical industry lobbyists took to kill a glyphosate ban planned by Thailand in 2019. Thailand officials had also cited concerns for public health in seeking to ban the weed killer, but reversed course after U.S. threats about trade disruption."
In addition to instructing Mexico's farmers to stop using glyphosate by 2024, the López Obrador administration on Dec. 31, 2020 issued a "final decree" calling for "a phase-out of the planting and consumption of genetically engineered corn, which farmers often spray with glyphosate, a practice that often leaves residues of the pesticide in finished food products," the news outlet noted.
The Mexican government has characterized the restrictions as an effort to improve the nation's "food security and sovereignty" and to protect its wealth of biological as well as cultural diversity and farming communities.
Mexico's promotion of human and environmental health, however, "has triggered fear in the United States for the health of agricultural exports, especially Bayer's glyphosate products," Gillam wrote.
But Mexico’s concern for the health of its citizens has triggered fear in the United States for the health of agric… https://t.co/d81tuhqYcl— carey gillam (@carey gillam)1613482743.0
Based on its analysis of government emails from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and other U.S. agencies from 2019 and 2020, The Guardian explained how the U.S., frustrated by the positions that Mexico has taken, is trying to use the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — the Trump-led free trade deal that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dubbed NAFTA 2.0 — to force Mexico to abandon its plans to ban glyphosate and phase out GMO corn.
According to The Guardian, Mexico each year imports roughly $3 billion in corn from the U.S., where 90% of corn production relies on GMO seeds.
As the newspaper reported:
One email makes a reference to staff within López Obrador's administration as "vocal anti-biotechnology activists," and another email states that Mexico's health agency (COFEPRIS) is "becoming a big time problem."
Internal USTR communications lay out how the agrochemical industry is "pushing" for the US to "fold this issue" into the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal that went into effect 1 July. The records then show the USTR does exactly that, telling Mexico its actions on glyphosate and genetically engineered crops raise concerns "regarding compliance" with USMCA.
Citing discussions with CropLife, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) joined in the effort, discussing in an inter-agency email "how we could use USMCA to work through these issues."
Nathan Donley, a biologist at CBD, told The Guardian that "we're seeing more and more how the pesticide industry uses the U.S. government to aggressively push its agenda on the international stage and quash any attempt by people in other countries to take control of their food supply."
Corporate executives in the agrochemical industry reportedly became alarmed about the López Obrador administration's position on pesticides in late 2019 when Mexican officials explained their decision to refuse imports of glyphosate from China by referring to the "precautionary principle."
Detailing a series of emails between U.S. government officials and industry executives, Gillam described how the latter told the former "that they feared restricting glyphosate would lead to limits on other pesticides and could set a precedent for other countries to do the same."
The emails also indicated worries that "Mexico may also reduce the levels of pesticide residues allowed in food," a development that industry executives warned would undermine U.S. exports of corn and soybeans to Mexico.
As Gillam wrote, CropLife president Chris Novak told U.S. officials that "'if Mexico extends the precautionary principle' to pesticide residue levels in food, '$20 billion in U.S. annual agricultural exports to Mexico will be jeopardized.'"
According to The Guardian, "It is unclear if the efforts to push Mexico to change its policy position are still underway within the new Biden administration."
The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a progressive think tank working to build fair and sustainable food, farm, and trade systems, tweeted Tuesday that the USTR has a choice.
"Will they continue the pattern of doing the bidding of global biotech/seed firms like Monsanto?" asked IATP. "Or, will the USTR respect other countries' rights to protect the environment and indigenous crops? Will they recalibrate U.S. trade policy to be more transparent?"
IATP, for its part, has recommended that Katherine Tai, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the USTR office, "break with the corporate free trade model" supported by previous administrations from both major parties.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By C. Michael White
Members of Congress asked seven major baby food makers to hand over test results and other internal documents after a 2019 report found that, out of 168 baby food products, 95% contained at least one heavy metal. Foods with rice or root vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, had some of the highest levels, but they weren't the only ones.
How concerned should parents be and what can they do to reduce their child's exposure?
As a professor and pharmacist, I have investigated health safety concerns for several years in drugs and dietary supplements, including contamination with heavy metals and the chemical NDMA, a likely carcinogen. Here are answers to four questions parents are asking about the risks in baby food.
How Do Heavy Metals Get Into Baby Food?
Heavy metals come from the natural erosion of the earth's crust, but humans have dramatically accelerated environmental exposure to heavy metals, as well.
As coal is burned, it releases heavy metals into the air. Lead was commonly found in gasoline, paint, pipes and pottery glazes for decades. A pesticide with both lead and arsenic was widely used on crops and in orchards until it was banned in 1988, and phosphate-containing fertilizers, including organic varieties, still contain small amounts of cadmium, arsenic, mercury and lead.
These heavy metals still contaminate soil, and irrigation can expose more soil to heavy metals in water.
When food is grown in contaminated soil and irrigated with water containing heavy metals, the food becomes contaminated. Additional heavy metals can be introduced during manufacturing processes.
The United States has made major strides to reduce the use of fossil fuels, filter pollutants and remove lead from many products such as gasoline and paint. This reduced exposure to lead in the air by 98% from 1980 to 2019. Processes can now also remove a proportion of the heavy metals from drinking water. However, the heavy metals that accumulated in the soil over the decades is an ongoing problem, especially in developing countries.
How Much Heavy Metal Is Too Much?
The World Health Organization and the Food and Drug Administration have defined tolerable daily intakes of heavy metals. However, it's important to recognize that for many heavy metals, including lead and arsenic, there is no daily intake that is completely devoid of long-term health risk.
For lead, the FDA considers 3 micrograms per day or more to be cause for concern in children, well below the level for adults (12.5 micrograms per day).
Young children's bodies are smaller than adults, and lead can't be stored as readily in the bone, so the same dose of heavy metals causes much greater blood concentrations in young children where it can do more damage. In addition, young brains are more rapidly developing and are therefore at greater risk of neurological damage.
These lead levels are about one-tenth of the dose needed to achieve a blood lead concentration associated with major neurological problems, including the development of behavioral issues like aggression and attention deficit disorder. That doesn't mean lower doses are safe, though. Recent research shows that lower blood lead levels still impact neurological function, just not as dramatically.
For other heavy metals, the daily intake considered tolerable is based on body weight: mercury is 4 micrograms per kilogram of body weight; arsenic is not currently defined but before 2011 it was 2.1 micrograms per kilogram of body weight.
Like with lead, there is a considerable safety margin between the tolerable dose and the dose that poses high risk of causing neurological harm, anemia, liver and kidney damage and an increased risk of cancer. But even smaller amounts still carry risks.
One example of the exposure infants can face is a brand of carrot baby food found to have 23.5 parts of lead per billion, equivalent to 0.67 micrograms of lead per ounce. Since the average 6-month-old eats 4 ounces of vegetables a day, that would be 2.7 micrograms of lead a day – almost the maximum tolerable daily dose.
What Can Parents Do to Reduce a Child's Exposure?
Since the amount of heavy metals varies so dramatically, food choices can make a difference. Here are a few ways to reduce a young child's exposure.
1) Minimize the use of rice-based products, including rice cereal, puffed rice and rice-based teething biscuits. Switching from rice-based products to those made with oats, corn, barley or quinoa could reduce the ingestion of arsenic by 84% and total heavy metal content by about 64%, according to the study of 168 baby food products by the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures.
Using frozen banana pieces or a clean washcloth instead of a rice cereal based teething biscuit was found to reduce the total heavy metal exposure by about 91%.
2) Switch from fruit juices to water. Fruit juice is not recommended for small children because it is laden with sugar, but it also is a source of heavy metals. Switching to water could reduce the intake of heavy metals by about 68%, according to the report.
3) Alternate between root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, and other vegetables. The roots of plants are in closest contact with the soil and have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other vegetables. Switching from carrots or sweet potatoes to other vegetables could decrease the total heavy metal content on that day by about 73%. Root vegetables have vitamins and other nutrients, so you don't have to abandon them altogether, but use them sparingly.
Making your own baby food may not reduce your child's exposure to heavy metals. It depends on the heavy metal dosage in each of the ingredients that you are using. Organic may not automatically mean the heavy metal content is lower because soil could have been contaminated for generations before its conversion, and neighboring farm water runoff could contaminate common water sources.
Is Anyone Doing Anything About It?
The congressional report calls for the FDA to better define acceptable limits for heavy metals in baby food. It points out that the heavy metal levels found in some baby foods far exceed the maximum levels allowed in bottled water. It also recommends standards for testing in the industry, and suggests requiring baby food makers to report heavy metals amounts on their product labels so parents can make informed choices.
Baby food manufacturers are also discussing the issue. The Baby Food Council was created in 2019 to bring together major infant and toddler food companies and advocacy and research groups with the goal of reducing heavy metals in baby food products. They created a Baby Food Standard and Certification Program to work collaboratively on testing and certification of raw ingredients. Ultimately, baby food makers will need to consider changing farm sources of raw ingredients, using fewer seasonings and altering processing practices.
The U.S. has made important inroads in reducing heavy metals in air and water since the 1980s, dramatically lowering exposure. With additional focus, it can further reduce heavy metal exposure in baby food, too.
C. Michael White is a distinguished professor and head of the department of pharmacy practice at the University of Connecticut.
Disclosure statement: C. Michael White 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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The Philadelphia Energy Solutions Refining Complex on June 21, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, after a massive fire erupted that triggered explosions. Eduardo Munoz Alvarez / Getty Images
Emissions of the cancer-causing chemical benzene exceeded federal limits at 10 oil refineries across the U.S. last year, a new report from the Environmental Integrity Project has found.
The Environmental Integrity Project reviewed data for 114 refineries across the country. Of the 10 that exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action levels, six were in Texas, while the remaining four were located in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, New Mexico and Mississippi, Reuters reported.
The report analyzed a year's worth of data reported to the EPA following a rule that took effect in 2018 requiring continuous air pollution monitoring at the facilities' perimeters in order to protect nearby communities, which are typically working class and predominantly black or hispanic.
One of the 20 most commonly used chemicals in the U.S., benzene occurs in crude oil, gasoline, vehicle exhaust and cigarette smoke, as well as in glues, paints, furniture waxes and detergents, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Multiple studies have shown that long-term exposure to elevated levels of benzene can cause leukemia, which is a cancer affecting blood-forming tissues, according to the American Cancer Society. Benzene can also cause poor red blood cell production and anemia, and can change blood levels of antibodies, which boosts risk of infection, according to the CDC.
The report found that breathing in benzene concentrations as low as 13 micrograms per cubic meter over a lifetime could cause one additional cancer case for every 10,000 people exposed.
EPA regulations dictate that benzene levels higher than nine micrograms per cubic meter over the course of a year require action on the part of the refineries, though they are not in violation of the law, The Guardian reported.
"The federal action level is intended as a benchmark to flag when emissions are higher than expected, so that facilities can look for the cause and take early action," an EPA spokesperson told The Hill. "The federal action level is not based on an analysis of risk levels to the community — but rather on emissions from the facility."
The top 10 refineries emitting benzene above EPA limits were:
- Philadelphia Energy Solutions - Philadelphia, PA (49 micrograms per cubic meter)
- HollyFrontier Navajo Artesia - Artesia, NM (36 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Total Port Arthur Refinery - Port Arthur, TX (22.3 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Pasadena Refining - Pasadena, TX (18 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Flint Hills Resources Corpus Christi East - Corpus Christi, TX (16.1 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Chevron Pascagoula - Pascagoula, MS (13.8 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Valero Corpus Christi East - Corpus Christi, TX (13 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Chalmette Refining - Chalmette, LA (12.3 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Shell Deer Park - Deer Park, TX (11.1 micrograms per cubic meter)
- Marathon Galveston Bay Texas City - Texas City, TX (10 micrograms per cubic meter)
The leading emitter, Philadelphia Energy Solutions, shut down its South Philadelphia refinery and filed for bankruptcy following a large explosion last June. During the year before, air monitors showed the net concentration of benzene near the facility was five times the EPA action level.
In May 2019, the air monitors detected benzene levels at more than 21 times above the action level, NBC News reported. NBC also cited census data showing 60 percent of the 297,000 people living within three miles of the PES refinery are minorities, and around 45 percent live below the poverty line.
At the HollyFrontier Navajo Artesia refinery in New Mexico, monitors detected a net concentration of 998 micrograms per cubic meter during one two-week period, UPI reported. The net concentration for the year was three times higher than the EPA limits.
"These results highlight refineries that need to do a better job of installing pollution controls and implementing safer workplace practices to reduce the leakage of this cancer-causing pollutant into local communities," Eric Schaeffer, Executive Director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said in a press release. "Now, EPA needs to enforce these rules."
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By Lynne Peeples
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
In late September 2020, officials in Wrangell, Alaska, warned residents who were elderly, pregnant or had health problems to avoid drinking the city's tap water — unless they could filter it on their own.
At issue wasn't any of the well-known and widely feared water infiltrators such as E. coli or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The culprit chemicals tainting taps from Cocoa, Florida, to the Finger Lakes of New York to a correctional facility in Only, Tennessee, are, in fact, less recognized yet more ubiquitous: disinfection by-products.
"Take a glass of water. You may or may not have pesticides, pharmaceuticals, PFAS and lead in it. Usually not," says Susan Richardson, a professor of biochemistry at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "But there's always something that is in your drinking water, and that's disinfection by-products."
Aptly named, the chemicals form in water when disinfectants that are widely used to kill pathogens in municipal drinking water facilities react with organic compounds. These compounds may be present in the water as a result of natural processes such as the decay of leaves and animal matter, as well as human activities that may release solvents, pharmaceuticals, pesticides and industrial chemicals. Exposure to disinfection by-products through drinking, bathing or swimming has been linked to potential increased risks of low birthweight babies, birth defects, miscarriages and cancer.
"Disinfection is hugely important. We've got to kill those pathogens," says Richardson. "We had millions of people dying from waterborne illnesses before we started disinfecting water in the 1800s."
Cholera and typhoid fever were once deadly and pervasive threats. Still today, when concentrations of disinfectants fall too low, drinking water can become a breeding ground for dangerous pathogens such as Legionella, E. coli, even cholera.
"It's a trade-off between inactivating pathogens that are going to make people sick today versus the long-term, low-level risk of chemicals in the water," says Christy Remucal, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Striking a balance may be even more challenging today as waters become increasingly compromised due to population growth, wastewater intrusion, energy exploration, climate change — and now the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Richardson.
During the pandemic, many places have increased use of chlorine for disinfection in indoor and outdoor settings and during wastewater treatment, resulting in the potential for higher levels of disinfection by-products. Authors of a study published in October warn that this "upsurge and overuse of chlorine-based disinfectants" may pose a threat to human health "by impacting water quality."
Concentrations of harmful chemicals have also likely increased in buildings left vacant during Covid-19 shutdowns. The longer that water sits in pipes, explains Richardson, the longer it has to react with disinfectants and form more by-products.
Still, Gregory Korshin, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, encourages perspective on the issue of disinfection by-products. The answer, he and others say, is not to stop disinfecting water, nor is it for everyone to buy bottled water.
"There is a dark side of disinfection," adds Korshin. "But this doesn't compromise the notion that drinking water in the U.S. is safe."
Chemists first discovered disinfection by-products in treated drinking water in the 1970s. The trihalomethanes they found, they determined, had resulted from the reaction of chlorine with natural organic matter. Since then, scientists have identified more than 700 additional disinfection by-products. "And those only represent a portion. We still don't know half of them," says Richardson, whose lab has identified hundreds of disinfection by-products.
Identification of disinfection by-products is incredibly difficult, she explains, because these chemicals are not simply flowing down a river from an industrial site or running off a farm. "They didn't exist before," she adds. "It's a complete unknown — there's no preconceived idea of what these chemicals look like."
Another research team recently discovered more previously unidentified disinfection by-products. As they described in a January 2020 study, potentially carcinogenic chemicals are formed through the interaction of chlorine and not only organic matter in the environment but also manmade materials that include phenols such as bisphenol A (BPA) and other plasticizers, as well as sunscreen agents and antimicrobials.
"These phenol compounds are incredibly widespread because of their properties," says Carsten Prasse, a coauthor on the study and an assistant professor of environmental health and environmental engineering at Johns Hopkins University. He highlights their use in both plastic pipes and plastic bottles, which frequently carry drinking water.
What’s Regulated and What’s Not?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently regulates 11 disinfection by-products — including a handful of trihalomethanes (THM) and haloacetic acids (HAA). While these represent only a small fraction of all disinfection by-products, EPA aims to use their presence to indicate the presence of other disinfection by-products. "The general idea is if you control THMs and HAAs, you implicitly or by default control everything else as well," says Korshin.
EPA also requires drinking water facilities to use techniques to reduce the concentration of organic materials before applying disinfectants, and regulates the quantity of disinfectants that systems use. These rules ultimately can help control levels of disinfection by-products in drinking water.
Click the image for an interactive version of this chart on the Environmental Working Group website.
Still, some scientists and advocates argue that current regulations do not go far enough to protect the public. Many question whether the government is regulating the right disinfection by-products, and if water systems are doing enough to reduce disinfection by-products. EPA is now seeking public input as it considers potential revisions to regulations, including the possibility of regulating additional by-products. The agency held a two-day public meeting in October 2020 and plans to hold additional public meetings throughout 2021.
When EPA set regulations on disinfection by-products between the 1970s and early 2000s, the agency, as well as the scientific community, was primarily focused on by-products of reactions between organics and chlorine — historically the most common drinking water disinfectant. But the science has become increasingly clear that these chlorinated chemicals represent a fraction of the by-product problem.
For example, bromide or iodide can get caught up in the reaction, too. This is common where seawater penetrates a drinking water source. By itself, bromide is innocuous, says Korshin. "But it is extremely [reactive] with organics," he says. "As bromide levels increase with normal treatment, then concentrations of brominated disinfection by-products will increase quite rapidly."
Almost half of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of either the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, where saltwater intrusion can be a problem for drinking water supplies. "In the U.S., the rule of thumb is the closer to the sea, the more bromide you have," says Korshin, noting there are also places where bromide naturally leaches out from the soil. Still, some coastal areas tend to be spared. For example, the city of Seattle's water comes from the mountains, never making contact with seawater and tending to pick up minimal organic matter.
Hazardous disinfection by-products can also be an issue with desalination for drinking water. "As desalination practices become more economical, then the issue of controlling bromide becomes quite important," adds Korshin.
Other Hot Spots
Coastal areas represent just one type of hot spot for disinfection by-products. Agricultural regions tend to send organic matter — such as fertilizer and animal waste — into waterways. Areas with warmer climates generally have higher levels of natural organic matter. And nearly any urban area can be prone to stormwater runoff or combined sewer overflows, which can contain rainwater as well as untreated human waste, industrial wastewater, hazardous materials and organic debris. These events are especially common along the East Coast, notes Sydney Evans, a science analyst with the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG, a collaborator on this reporting project).
The only drinking water sources that might be altogether free of disinfection by-products, suggests Richardson, are private wells that are not treated with disinfectants. She used to drink water from her own well. "It was always cold, coming from great depth through clay and granite," she says. "It was fabulous."
Today, Richardson gets her water from a city system that uses chloramine.
Most community water systems in the U.S. use chlorine for disinfection in their treatment plant. Because disinfectants are needed to prevent bacteria growth as the water travels to the homes at the ends of the distribution lines, sometimes a second round of disinfection is also added in the pipes.
Here, systems usually opt for either chlorine or chloramine. "Chloramination is more long-lasting and does not form as many disinfection by-products through the system," says Steve Via, director of federal relations at the American Water Works Association. "Some studies show that chloramination may be more protective against organisms that inhabit biofilms such as Legionella."
If a drinking water facility fails to meet EPA regulations for disinfection by-products, one relatively easy and cheap modification is to add ammonia to the existing treatment, turning chlorine to chloramine. Many large community water systems in the U.S. now use chloramine. By doing so, according to Richardson, they have dropped levels of regulated disinfection by-products by up to as much as 90%.
However, there is one major drawback to this shift: the creation of potentially more harmful by-products. "It might push down on regulated disinfection by-products, but then other things pop up that are even more toxic," says Richardson, whose research team discovered previously unknown disinfection by-products in chloraminated drinking water. One of those finds, iodoacetic acid, is the most DNA-damaging disinfection by-product known to date.
Prasse underscored the concern: "From a regulatory perspective, we could say we're fine. But it's a false sense of security."
Rather than continuing on the toxic treadmill of replacing one potentially toxic chemical for another, a more effective solution may be to focus upstream in the treatment process — such as keeping organics out of the system in the first place. "That requires engineers, chemists, toxicologists and regulators to come together and figure something out," says Prasse.
When he moved to the U.S. from Germany, Prasse says he immediately noticed the bad taste of the water. "You can taste the chlorine here. That's not the case in Germany," he says.
In his home country, water systems use chlorine — if at all — at lower concentrations and at the very end of treatment. In the Netherlands, chlorine isn't used at all as the risks are considered to outweigh the benefits, says Prasse. He notes the challenge in making a convincing connection between exposure to low concentrations of disinfection by-products and health effects, such as cancer, that can occur decades later. In contrast, exposure to a pathogen can make someone sick very quickly.
But many countries in Europe have not waited for proof and have taken a precautionary approach to reduce potential risk. The emphasis there is on alternative approaches for primary disinfection such as ozone or ultraviolet light. Reverse osmosis is among the "high-end" options, used to remove organic and inorganics from the water. While expensive, says Prasse, the method of forcing water through a semipermeable membrane is growing in popularity for systems that want to reuse wastewater for drinking water purposes.
Remucal notes that some treatment technologies may be good at removing a particular type of contaminant while being ineffective at removing another. "We need to think about the whole soup when we think about treatment," she says. What's more, Remucal explains, the mixture of contaminants may impact the body differently than any one chemical on its own.
Richardson's preferred treatment method is filtering the water with granulated activated carbon, followed by a low dose of chlorine.
Granulated activated carbon is essentially the same stuff that's in a household filter. (EWG recommends that consumers use a countertop carbon filter to reduce levels of disinfection by-products.) While such a filter "would remove disinfection by-products after they're formed, in the plant they remove precursors before they form by-products," explains Richardson. She coauthored a 2019 paper that concluded the treatment method is effective in reducing a wide range of regulated and unregulated disinfection by-products.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992, and is still one of relatively few full-scale plants that uses the technology. Courtesy of Greater Cincinnati Water Works.
Despite the technology and its benefits being known for decades, relatively few full-scale plants use granulated active carbon. They often cite its high cost, Richardson says. "They say that, but the city of Cincinnati [Ohio] has not gone bankrupt using it," she says. "So, I'm not buying that argument anymore."
Greater Cincinnati Water Works installed a granulated activated carbon system in 1992. On a video call in December, Jeff Swertfeger, the superintendent of Greater Cincinnati Water Works, poured grains of what looks like black sand out of a glass tube and into his hand. It was actually crushed coal that has been baked in a furnace. Under a microscope, each grain looks like a sponge, said Swertfeger. When water passes over the carbon grains, he explained, open tunnels and pores provide extensive surface area to absorb contaminants.
While the granulated activated carbon initially was installed to address chemical spills and other industrial contamination concerns in the Ohio River, Cincinnati's main drinking water source, Swertfeger notes that the substance has turned out to "remove a lot of other stuff, too," including PFAS and disinfection by-product precursors.
"We use about one-third the amount of chlorine as we did before. It smells and tastes a lot better," he says. "The use of granulated activated carbon has resulted in lower disinfection by-products across the board."
Richardson is optimistic about being able to reduce risks from disinfection by-products in the future. "If we're smart, we can still kill those pathogens and lower our chemical disinfection by-product exposure at the same time," she says.
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
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When wildfires swept through the hills near Santa Cruz, California, in 2020, they released toxic chemicals into the water supplies of at least two communities. One sample found benzene, a carcinogen, at 40 times the state's drinking water standard.
Our testing has now confirmed a source of these chemicals, and it's clear that wildfires aren't the only blazes that put drinking water systems at risk.
In a new study, we heated plastic water pipes commonly used in buildings and water systems to test how they would respond to nearby fires.
The results, released Dec. 14, show how easily wildfires could trigger widespread drinking water contamination. They also show the risks when only part of a building catches fire and the rest remains in use. In some of our tests, heat exposure caused more than 100 chemicals to leach from the damaged plastics.
As environmental engineers, we advise communities on drinking water safety and disaster recovery. The western U.S.'s extreme wildfire seasons are putting more communities at risk in ways they might not realize. Just this year, more than 52,000 fires destroyed more than 17,000 structures – many of them homes connected to water systems. Heat-damaged plastic pipes can continue to leach chemicals into water over time, and ridding a water system of the contamination can take months and millions of dollars.
A Baffling Source of Contamination
The cause of drinking water contamination after wildfires has baffled authorities since it was discovered in 2017.
After the 2017 Tubbs Fire and 2018 Camp Fire, chemicals were found in buried water distribution networks, some at levels comparable to hazardous waste. Contamination was not in the water treatment plants or drinking water sources. Some homeowners found drinking water contamination in their plumbing.
Tests revealed volatile organic compounds had reached levels that posed immediate health risks in some areas, including benzene levels that exceeded the EPA hazardous waste threshold of 500 parts per billion. Benzene was found at a level 8,000 times the federal drinking water limit and 200 times the level that causes immediate health effects. Those effects can include dizziness, headaches, skin and throat irritation and even unconsciousness, among other risks.
Plastic water pipes don't have to burn to be a problem. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University, CC BY-ND
The Problem With Plastics
Plastics are ubiquitous in drinking water systems. They are often less expensive to install than metal alternatives, which hold up against high heat but are vulnerable to corrosion.
Today, water pipes under the street and those that deliver water to customers' water meters are increasingly made of plastic. Pipes that transport the drinking water from the meter to the building are often plastic. Water meters also sometimes contain plastics. Private wells can have plastic well casings as well as buried plastic pipes that deliver well water to plastic storage tanks and buildings.
Pipes inside buildings that carry hot and cold water to faucets can also be plastic, as can faucet connectors, water heater dip tubes, refrigerator and ice maker tubing.
Some common types of drinking water pipes: Black plastic is HDPE; white is PVC; yellow is CPVC; red, maroon, orange, and blue are PEX; green is PP; and gray is polybutylene. The metal pipes are lead, iron and copper. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University, CC BY-ND
To determine if plastic pipes could be responsible for drinking water contamination after wildfires, we exposed commonly available plastic pipes to heat. The temperatures were similar to the heat from a wildfire that radiates toward buildings but isn't enough to cause the pipes to catch fire.
We tested several popular plastic drinking water pipes, including high-density polyethylene (HDPE), crosslinked polyethylene (PEX), polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and chlorinated polyvinylchloride (CPVC).
Benzene and other chemicals were generated inside the plastic pipes just by heating. After the plastics cooled, these chemicals then leached into the water. It happened at temperatures as low as 392 degrees Fahrenheit. Fires can exceed 1,400 degrees.
While researchers previously discovered that plastics could release benzene and other chemicals into the air during heating, this new study shows heat-damaged plastics can directly leach dozens of toxic chemicals into water.
What to Do About Contamination
A community can stop water contamination from spreading if damaged pipes can be quickly isolated. Without isolation, the contaminated water may move to other parts of the water system, across town or within a building, causing further contamination.
During the CZU Lightning Complex Fire near Santa Cruz, one water utility had water distribution system valves that seemed to have contained the benzene-contaminated water.
Rinsing heat-damaged pipes won't always remove the contamination. While helping Paradise, California, recover from the 2018 Camp Fire disaster, we and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that some plastic pipes would have required more than 100 days of nonstop water rinsing to be safe for use. Instead, officials decided to replace the pipes.
Different types of pipes respond to heating in different ways. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University, CC BY-ND
Even if a home is undamaged, we recommend testing the water in private wells and service lines if fire was on the property. If contamination is found, we recommend finding and removing the heat-damaged plastic contamination sources. Some plastics can slowly leach chemicals like benzene over time, and this could go on for months to years, depending on the scale of contamination and water use. Boiling the water doesn't help and can release benzene into the air.
Avoiding Widespread Contamination
Communities can take steps to avoid contaminated drinking water in the event of a fire. Water companies can install network isolation valves and backflow prevention devices, to prevent contaminated water moving from a damaged building into the utility pipe network.
Insurance companies can use pricing to encourage property owners and cities to install fire-resistant metal pipes instead of plastic. Rules for keeping vegetation away from meter boxes and buildings can also lessen the chance heat reaches plastic water system components.
Homeowners and communities rebuilding after fires now have more information about the risks as they consider whether to use plastic pipes. Some, like the town of Paradise, have chosen to rebuild with plastic and accept the risks. In 2020, the city had another wildfire scare and residents were forced to evacuate again.
Disclosure statement: Andrew J. Whelton received funding from the Paradise Irrigation District and Paradise Rotary Foundation. He also participated in the California Governor's Operations of Emergency Services Camp Fire Water Task Force from January, 2019 to May, 2019. Amisha Shah received funding from the Paradise Irrigation District. Kristofer P. Isaacson 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.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once widely used as building insulation and flame retardant. Those uses ceased as its carcinogenic qualities became known, but it is still used in the chlorine industry, for some automotive brakes and in ceiling and roof tiles. While 67 countries currently ban the fibrous material, the U.S. is not one of them.
Now, researchers are focused on certain kinds of fibrous asbestos that are produced as a waste product from mining. The very quality that makes asbestos hazardous to inhale could also make it well equipped to grab carbon dioxide particles that are floating through the air or dissolved in rainwater, reported Eos. The high surface area of the fibers makes them "highly reactive and readily able to transform" into harmless carbonates when mixed with carbon dioxide, the report detailed. This process occurs naturally when asbestos is exposed to the greenhouse gas.
According to MIT Technology Review, these stable materials could lock away greenhouse gases for millions of years and prove to be a viable option for a mass drawdown of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists hope to first offset the "ample" carbon emissions from mining activities and then to expand efforts to draw down greenhouse gases.
"Decarbonizing mines in the next decade is just helping us to build confidence and know-how to actually mine for the purpose of negative emissions," Gregory Dipple, a leading researcher in the field, told MIT Technology Review.
Mineralization also occurs when these materials enter the oceans via runoff and marine life use the ions to make their shells and skeleton that ultimately end up as limestone and other rock that traps carbon, Jackson Bird, host of the Kottke Ride Home Podcast, reported.
Carbon sequestration is a necessary tool in the fight to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Without it, it is unlikely that we will meet our "carbon goals" and stave off the very worst consequences of the climate crisis.
Scientists are also exploring how to use waste products from other types of mining, like nickel, copper, diamond and platinum, to capture carbon. They estimate there could be more than enough materials to lock away all the carbon dioxide humans have ever emitted, and more, Bird reported.
Right now, most of that is locked away in solid rock that is never exposed to air, which would kickstart those chemical reactions. That's why scientists studying carbon removal are trying to find ways to increase exposure and to accelerate this usually slow reaction to transform mining waste into a powerful agent to fight the climate crisis.
The MIT report details how many of the interventions being tested attempt to increase the reactive surface area of material exposed to carbon dioxide by digging the materials up, grinding them into finer particles, and spreading them into thin layers that are fanned across with air. Others call for heating or adding acid to the compounds. Some are even using bacterial mats to jumpstart the chemical reaction, Eos reported.
"We are looking to accelerate this process and transition it from a pile of asbestos waste to a deposit of carbonate mineral which is completely harmless," said Jenine McCutcheon, a geomicrobiologist working to turn abandoned asbestos tailings into harmless magnesium carbonate, reported Eos. Gymnasts and rock climbers use a white powder version of the material to improve their grip.
"This is the giant, untapped opportunity that could remove enormous amounts of CO2," Roger Aines, head of the Carbon Initiative at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, told the MIT Technology Review.
Supporters of the new strategy have concerns about the cost and land limitations, the report continued. The process is expensive compared to other drawdown technologies like planting trees. It also could require vast amounts of land to spread out enough newly unearthed materials to make a significant carbon drawdown, making it harder to scale up.
Bird also noted the concern that the entire process could be energy intensive, which, if not carefully balanced, could offset the carbon capture benefits it is attempting to create.
Finally, there are numerous concerns surrounding the toxicity of these materials and the safety in handing them. Spreading asbestos dust onto land and/or fanning it to increase air flow has raised safety concerns for workers and populations nearby, the MIT Technology Review noted.
Nevertheless, the new process could be a "promising option to add to a slew of other solutions as we all know there will not be one quick fix panacea that will solve the climate crisis," Bird concluded.
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By Julia Conley
As the American public awaits a new coronavirus aid package and at least one in five small businesses expect to close by the end of 2020 due to economic hardship, government watchdog Accountable.US and the HuffPost revealed Sunday that at least five companies which were previously fined for pollution violations received millions of dollars in loans via the Paycheck Protection Program which was introduced in March.
Fossil fuel companies, a diesel engine parts manufacturer, and a nuclear waste management company were among the corporations which received up to $32 million in loans, after they were forced to collectively pay more than $52 million in penalties, according to the analysis.
Tens of millions of dollars went to companies with environmental mishaps. https://t.co/9gZs160fIt— Chris D'Angelo 🌎 (@Chris D'Angelo 🌎)1601813487.0
"These companies have a clear history of violating public trust and the law by contaminating the environment in pursuit of profits. Our federal government should not be essentially giving back portions of the penalties they've paid, but that's exactly what the Trump administration is doing through the PPP," Chris Saeger, director of strategic initiatives at Accountable.US, told the HuffPost.
The companies include CountryMark Refining and Logistics, a subsidiary of an oil company based in Indiana, which took a PPP loan of $5 million to $10 million in April, seven years after it paid more than $18 million to correct its violations of the Clean Air Act, including emissions standards regarding the carcinogen benzene.
Utah-based diesel engine parts company Performance Diesel took a loan between $350,000 and $1 million, just a year after it agreed to pay $1.1 million to settle Clean Air Act violations.
"Polluters should receive penalties and regulatory scrutiny, not taxpayer subsidies," tweeted Joe Murphy, an environmental attorney in New York.
The report comes days after Friends of the Earth, Public Citizen, and BailoutWatch revealed "how the U.S. government provided a safety net for the flagging fossil fuel industry" through coronavirus relief packages by allowing oil and gas companies to issue nearly $100 billion in bonds through the Federal Reserve's bond purchasing program.
More than 7,000 fossil fuel companies have received a total of $3 billion to $7 billion in PPP loans, while an estimated 167,735 small businesses, including restaurants and independent retailers, have been forced to close since March. Small business owners reported long delays in actually accessing funds after they were approved for PPP loans in the spring while they struggled to keep their businesses open and employees paid.
As of Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was negotiating more potential Covid-19 aid with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. House Democrats passed the HEROES Act in May and a second version of the legislation last week, calling for a reinstatement of the $600 weekly enhanced unemployment benefit included in the CARES Act, $400 billion for state and local governments, child care assistance funding, and funding for Covid-19 testing and contact tracing.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has so far refused to take up the legislation.
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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By Charli Shield
Local authorities in the eastern Russian city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy have been warning people against visiting the nearby Khalaktyrsky beach, after surfers complained of partially losing their eyesight and experiencing headaches, fevers and nausea when venturing into the water.
"I noticed the ocean had a strange taste and didn't smell like it usually does. My eyes hurt, I had a dry, scratchy throat and my body itched horribly," Anton Morozov, founder of local surfing school, Snowave, told DW.
He and his team first noticed their symptoms in early September, but didn't associate them with the ocean until later in the month, when they reported them to the authorities.
Since then, images of dead octopuses, seals, sea urchins and starfish littered along the beach have been shared on social media, with some beachgoers saying dead fish look as if they have been boiled.
Local Authorities Investigate Three Causes
The authorities took samples from the ocean, where by the end of September, Morozov said a "yellowish-greenish liquid" had appeared along a 20 to 30-kilometer (12-18-mile) stretch of the shoreline.
Local investigators are now looking into three main reasons for the water pollution, including a toxic spill, volcanic activity in the area and naturally occurring deadly algal blooms, governor of the Kamchatka region, Vladimir Solodov, told a press conference on Monday.
On a video posted to Instagram, the governor said the situation was normalizing due to the ocean's unique ability to self-regenerate.
"As I said, we will push for a full and meticulous investigation of the reasons behind what happened, but now we can observe that the situation has significantly improved in the past few days."
The region's natural resources minister, Alexei Kumarkov, said tests on samples had thus far only detected unusually high levels of the chemical phenol and oil products in the water.
However, later on Monday, Russia's Natural Resources Minister said that the pollution was unlikely to be manmade, the RIA news agency reported.
Ecology Minister Dmitry Kobylkin said that so far research had only uncovered slightly raised levels of iron and phosphates.
He also said that the incident might have been prompted by the stormy conditions recently experienced in the region of eastern Russia.
Little Evidence for Oil Spill
Environmentalist Dmitry Lisitsyn, head of local NGO Sakhalin Environmental Watch, told DW there have been no visible signs of oil on the surface of the water, and the bottom-dwelling sea creatures that have been found dead are not normally linked to oil spills.
"Petroleum products are lighter than water — they form a film at the top of the water, which mainly kills birds. Oil products aren't poisonous enough to kill such a huge amount of animals," he said.
Nicky Cariglia, an independent marine pollution advisor, said oil spill events are often "very obvious", and that though in some cases it is possible for spills of very light oil to kill marine animals that live on the sea floor, oil tends to float on the surface of the water.
"The first thing you see when you have an oil spill is the presence of oil — whether it's crude oil or bunker oil or even lighter types of oil," she told DW.
As to the high concentrations of phenol in the water, Cariglia said it is not enough to indicate whether the event is a result of human activity or a naturally occurring phenomenon.
"High levels of phenol concentration can result from land-based runoff — if there have been, for example, a lot of fires — or from harmful algal blooms, or also from other decomposing organic materials," she said.
Deeper Research Needed
Lisitsyn is "convinced" the water pollution is linked to a leak of decades-old expired rocket fuel from the Radygino military base located 10 kilometers from Khalaktyrsky beach.
"It's very likely that the waste disposal site there started to leak, maybe the storage tanks broke and a large amount of rocket fuel was washed into the ocean," Lisitsyn told DW, speculating that the noxious liquid could have been washed into the ocean during a cyclone that hit the area on September 9.
He says it is now up to authorities to launch a thorough investigation into the source of the contamination, which includes determining whether there is an ongoing leak.
"The military base needs to be examined, as do the storage locations and all the streams of water that flow down from it into the ocean," he said, adding that the components of rocket fuel are carcinogenic and that if it were spilling uncontained into the ocean, it could have long-term effects — not just for marine life.
"They are very harmful to people. I wouldn't recommend walking along this beach or breathing in the fumes there."
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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The agency finalized a rollback Thursday of the Clinton-era "once in, always in" policy that required major polluters like industrial plants and refineries to maintain the highest possible levels of pollution controls as long as they continued to operate, Reuters reported.
"This is a lawless action that will undoubtedly increase carcinogens and other deadly pollution in our air," Clinton EPA administrator Carol Browner said in a statement reported by The Hill. "Taking this action during a global pandemic that preys upon people with existing respiratory ailments further confirms that for Andrew Wheeler and the political leadership of the EPA the cruelty is the point."
The agency first proposed reversing the rule in 2018, according to Reuters. The 1995 policy required that major polluters use maximum achievable control technology standards (MACT) throughout the lifetime of their operations. The new policy will allow these facilities to use less stringent standards after they reduce emissions. The so-called "major sources" that reduce their emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAP) will be reclassified as "area sources," emitters like gas stations or dry cleaners that emit less than 10 tons of a single pollutant or 25 tons of multiple pollutants each year.
"This action reduces regulatory burden and provides a level of fairness and flexibility for sources that reduce HAP emissions below major source thresholds and reclassify as area sources," the agency explained.
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued that the change would incentivize companies to invest in better technology to reduce emissions.
"Today's action is an important step to further President Trump's regulatory reform agenda by providing meaningful incentives for investment that prevents hazardous air pollution," he said in a statement reported by The Hill.
However, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) senior attorney John Walke said the reversal was entirely unnecessary. He said plants had already installed emission-reduction technology and had been maintaining the requirement that they reduce pollution 95 to 98 percent for decades.
"It's the triumph of extreme ideology over public health, common sense and the law," he told The Hill.
Walke further said on Twitter that the rollback would allow plants to emit two to ten times more hazardous air pollutants than before. This includes toxins like mercury, lead, arsenic, asbestos and benzene that can cause cancer, brain damage, fetal damage and premature death.
The EPA itself acknowledged the new policy could cause as many as 1,258 tons of additional pollutants to enter the air every year.
The Sierra Club pointed out that the change would disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color that tend to live closer to polluting plants. It comes as scientists warn that exposure to air pollution might increase the risk of dying of the new coronavirus, and Black and Hispanic Americans are contracting and dying of the new virus at higher rates.
"Despite … the renewed national focus on environmental justice, Wheeler is showing there is no level that he will not stoop to in order to placate polluters and carrying out the wishes of his disgraced predecessor, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt," national director of campaigns for the Sierra Club Mary Anne Hitt said in a statement. "Sierra Club, however, will continue to fight for the communities Wheeler has chosen to ignore. We will fight this reckless and unlawful rollback, in order to ensure that the American public is safe from dangerous air pollution."The NRDC also promised to fight the change, and the Environmental Defense Fund told Reuters it would sue to reverse the rollback.
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By Brett Walton
Who's responsible for making sure the water you drink is safe? Ultimately, you are. But if you live in the U.S., a variety of federal, state and local entities are involved as well.
The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) forms the foundation of federal oversight of public water systems — those that provide water to multiple homes or customers. Congress passed the landmark law in 1974 during a decade marked by accumulating evidence of cancer and other health damage caused by industrial chemicals that found their way into drinking water. The act authorized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the first time to set national standards for contaminants in drinking water. The EPA has since developed standards for 91 contaminants, a medley of undesirable intruders that range from arsenic and nitrate to lead, copper and volatile organic chemicals like benzene.
In 1996, amendments to the SDWA revised the process for developing drinking water standards, which limit the levels of specific contaminants. Nearly a quarter century after those amendments, an increasing number of policymakers and public health advocates today argue that the act is failing its mission to protect public health and is once again in need of major revision.
The process for setting federal drinking water contaminant limits, which is overseen by the EPA, was not designed to be speedy.
First, the EPA identifies a list of several dozen unregulated chemical and microbial contaminants that might be harmful. Then water utilities, which are in charge of water quality monitoring, test their treated water to see what shows up. The identification and testing is done on a five-year cycle. The EPA examines those results and, for at least five contaminants, as required by the SDWA, it determines whether a regulation is needed.
Three factors go into the decision: Is the contaminant harmful? Is it widespread at high levels? Will a regulation meaningfully reduce health risks? If the answer is "Yes" to all three, then a national standard will be forthcoming. Altogether, the process can take a decade or more from start to finish.
Usually, however, one of the three answers is "No." Since the 1996 amendments were passed, the EPA has not regulated any new contaminants through this process, though it has strengthened existing rules for arsenic, microbes and the chemical byproducts of drinking water disinfection. The agency did decide in 2011 that it should regulate perchlorate — which is used in explosives and rocket fuel and damages the thyroid — but reversed that decision in June 2020, claiming that the chemical is not widespread enough to warrant a national regulation.
Two other chemicals have recently advanced to the standard-writing stage. In February, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler announced that the agency would regulate PFOA and PFOS, both members of the class of non-stick, flame-retarding chemicals known as PFAS. For those two chemicals, the EPA currently has issued a health advisory, which is a non-enforceable guideline.
The act of writing a national standard introduces more calculations: health risks, cost of treatment to remove the contaminant from water and availability of treatment technology. Considering these, the EPA establishes what is known as a maximum contaminant level goal (MCLG), which is the level at which no one is expected to become ill from the contaminant over a lifetime. The agency then sets a standard as close to the goal as possible, taking treatment cost into account.
Standards, in the end, are not purely based on health protection and sometimes are higher than the MCLG. These standards, except for lead, apply to water as it leaves the treatment plant or moves throughout the distribution system. They do not apply to water from a home faucet, which could be compromised by old plumbing.
The EPA also has 15 "secondary" standards that relate to how water tastes and smells. Unless mandated by a state, utilities are not required to meet these standards.
Once the EPA sets a drinking water standard, the nation's roughly 50,000 community water systems — plus tens of thousands of schools, office buildings, gas stations and campgrounds that operate their own water systems — are obligated to test for the contaminant. If a regulated substance is found, system operators must treat the water so that contaminant concentrations fall below the standard.
Omissions and Nuances
That is the regulatory process at the federal level. But there are omissions and nuances.
One big omission is private wells. Water in wells that supply individual homes is not regulated by federal statute. Rather, private well owners are responsible for testing and treating their own well water. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 15% of U.S. residents use a private well. Some states, such as New Jersey, require that private wells be tested for contaminants before a home is sold. County health departments might also have similar point-of-sale requirements.
The nuance comes at the state level. States generally carry out the day-to-day grunt work of gathering water quality data from utilities and enforcing action against violations. To gain this authority, they must set drinking water standards that are at least as protective as the federal ones. If they want, they can set stricter limits or regulate contaminants that the EPA has not touched.
State authority had long been uncontroversial because only a few states — California and some northeastern states — were setting their own standards. That has changed in the last few years as states, responding to public pressure in the absence of an EPA standard, began regulating PFAS compounds.
"There was always a little bit of state standards-setting," says Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, an umbrella group for state regulators. "But it's gone from a little bit to a lot."
Six states — Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Vermont — adopted drinking water standards for certain PFAS compounds, while four others, including North Carolina and Minnesota, have issued health advisories or guidelines for groundwater cleanup.
States are also putting limits on other chemicals that the EPA has ignored. In July, New York adopted the nation's first drinking water standard for 1,4-dioxane, a synthetic chemical that was used before the 1990s as an additive to industrial solvents. The EPA deems it likely to cause cancer, but the agency has not regulated it in drinking water. In 2017, California approved a limit for 1,2,3-TCP, another manufactured industrial solvent that the EPA considers likely to be carcinogenic.
The burst of state standards, especially for PFAS chemicals, has raised eyebrows. Some lawmakers worry that mismatched standards are confusing to residents. New York and New Jersey, for instance, set different limits on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.
"This can create poor risk communication and a crisis of confidence by the public who have diminished trust in their state's standard when it fails to align with a neighboring state," Rep. Paul Tonko of New York said during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing in July.
Other representatives countered with the view that the EPA should concentrate on a select number of the most concerning contaminants so as not to overwhelm utilities and states with too many rules that are too hastily put together. Rep. John Shimkus from Illinois, echoing statements made by other committee members, said he does not want a system in which "quantity makes quality."
Tonko, however, argued that the federal process "has not worked," pointing to the two-plus decades since a new contaminant was regulated.
This debate, and other considerations like regional drinking water standards, is likely to carry over into the next Congress.
Editor's note: This story is part of a nine-month investigation of drinking water contamination across the U.S. The series is supported by funding from the Park Foundation and Water Foundation. Read the launch story, "Thirsting for Solutions," here.
Reposted with permission from Ensia.
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