Project goal: To create an environmentally friendly and sustainable alternative to leather, in this case using fungi.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Kathryn Crawford
Nearly a year before the novel coronavirus emerged, Dr. Leonardo Trasande published "Sicker, Fatter, Poorer," a book about connections between environmental pollutants and many of the most common chronic illnesses. The book describes decades of scientific research showing how endocrine-disrupting chemicals, present in our daily lives and now found in nearly all people, interfere with natural hormones in our bodies. The title sums up the consequences: Chemicals in the environment are making people sicker, fatter and poorer.
A comparison of the structures of estradiol (left), a female sex hormone, and BPA (right), an endocrine disruptor found in plastics often used in containers for storing food and beverages. Wikimedia
- Forever Chemicals Contaminate More Drinking Water Than ... ›
- Trump to Veto Bill Intended to Keep Forever Chemicals out of ... ›
- How to Avoid 'Forever Chemicals' in Your Dinner (and Popcorn ... ›
- Drinking Water Crisis Update: Supplies in 43 States Found ... ›
- PFAS Chemicals Contaminate U.S. Food Supply, FDA Confirms ... ›
By Kathleen Schuster
In the weeks since Beirut's deadly chemical blast, residents have been sweeping up the broken glass and wiping down surfaces caked in dust. And it's this dust that some say poses a major threat to the city.
Side Effects of Ammonium Nitrate<p>What is known is that when heated, ammonium nitrate — commonly used in fertilizers and, due to its ability to speed up combustion, also in explosives — melts, releasing toxic gases like nitrogen oxides (NOx) and ammonia gas (NH3).</p><p>These gases, both harmful to the human respiratory system and the environment, in turn break down and react with other chemicals. Nitrogen oxides, for example, when combined with other pollutants and sunlight form "bad ozone," that is to say, <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-level-ozone-pollution/ground-level-ozone-basics" target="_blank">ozone at ground level</a>.</p><p>Not only would these gases mix with Beirut's already dangerous air pollution levels — a combination of fossil fuel combustion, <a href="https://acp.copernicus.org/articles/20/9281/2020/" target="_blank">sea salt, and mineral dust</a> — which were estimated at least 150% over the World Health Organization's (WHO) standards before the disaster, but also with demolition dust.</p><p>There's no up-to-date information on the level of air pollution at the moment: Beirut shut down its monitoring system to cut costs in 2019. In previous years, though, Lebanon has averaged roughly 30 micrograms of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) per cubic meter, far above the WHO recommendation of <a href="https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/69477/WHO_SDE_PHE_OEH_06.02_eng.pdf?sequence=1" target="_blank">10 micrograms per cubic meter</a>.</p>
Political Instability Holds Up Testing<p>One person familiar with those tests is Najat Saliba, a professor of chemistry at the American University of Beirut, where she also directs the Nature Conservation Center.</p><p>Her team has been taking air samples with their own sensors and expects results in about a month — double the wait of the usual procedure, she says, due to the economic collapse.</p><p>"We are really running very low on resources like quality standards and equipment to do the tests," Saliba says.</p>
Beirut's Epic Trash Problem<p>That message doesn't bode well for Beirut, which has been dealing with a <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trash-crisis-forces-lebanons-environmental-awakening/a-36765579" target="_blank">recurring trash crisis</a> for several years, and is now facing a cleanup to the tune of up to $15 million (€12.6 million). In 2015, the government failed to react quickly enough after a major trash dump was closed, leaving streets and beaches covered in mounds of solid waste.</p><p>In fact, one of the city's main landfills reached capacity in late April, prompting the government to approve a vertical expansion that would hold for roughly three months – or until around the time of the blast.</p><p>The question of what to do with the solid waste has been on the mind of some, like Salam Kabboul, a local freelance journalist and co-founder of "The Tent," a volunteer initiative launched the day after the blast. The name refers to their first project of offering victims snacks and a place to rest with the only thing they had on hand: a tent.</p><p>Now, they repair buildings and homes so life can return to normal. They take precautions for the dust, but when it comes to dealing with trash, they're also in the dark about what to do.</p><p>"It's not clear what happens to the waste," says Kabboul, who, like everyone else is aware of another imminent trash crisis.</p><p>A new aspect of this problem is the type of debris in the cleanup. According to Seoud from UNDP, there's a lot of <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-e-waste/a-47210118" target="_blank">hard-to-dispose-of items</a> like air conditioners, compressors, electronics.</p><p>There's also medical waste from the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fear of chemical waste – both of which could cause problems for the city's water. As things stand, Beirut is waiting to find out if all of its pipes are still intact post-explosion, and researchers still aren't allowed to test the already contaminated coastal waters, which are roped off as the search for the missing continues.</p><p>Beirut is facing one pollution problem on top of another. Now, with the magnitude of dust and debris putting the city under even more strain, civilians and NGOs alike hope that this disaster could mark a turning point as it moves forward.</p>
When Hurricane Laura struck the Gulf Coast early on Thursday with record-setting winds and storm surges that caused flooding, it was bearing down on an area full of chemical plants. The fears about having toxic chemicals in an area increasingly vulnerable to tropical storms are playing out as a chemical plant caught fire and sent toxic plumes into the air throughout the day, as The New York Times reported.
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ... ›
- Texas Petroleum Chemical Plant Explosion, and Our Petrochemical ... ›
By Max G. Levy
In seabird after seabird, Anna Robuck found something concerning: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, lurking around vital organs.
Journeying Across the Globe<p>Coastal environments seem especially vulnerable to PFAS seeping from the <a href="https://www.newsobserver.com/news/business/article235963052.html" target="_blank">chemical plants</a> and military bases <a href="https://www.ewg.org/news-and-analysis/2020/04/updated-map-suspected-and-confirmed-pfas-pollution-us-military-bases" target="_blank">responsible for heavy contamination</a>. <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/ccwagner" target="_blank">Charlotte Wagner</a>, a researcher at Harvard University studying the global transport of pollutants, says it's still unclear what fraction of PFAS pollutants remain contained at their source, and what fraction has already leached into other environments.</p><p>But the fact that they do spread — and far — is clear. They generally wind up in oceans, according to Wagner. And not just the ones nearby. <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15913661/" target="_blank">Studies</a> in the early 2000s showed that PFAS survived decades-long journeys from manufacturers to remote ocean basins without breaking down.</p><p>"The ocean is not this static pool or bathtub," she says. Large-scale ocean circulation moves pollutants huge distances across the globe. Some varieties of PFAS may degrade slightly over the course of years, until they convert into one of the more stable "terminal PFAS" subgroups, including PFAAs.</p>
Measuring Harm to Ocean Life<p>In North Carolina's Cape Fear River, striped bass carrying <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019334762" target="_blank">high levels of PFAS </a>showed distinct signs of impaired immune and liver function. But in the vastness of ocean water, can PFAS levels be high enough to cause harm?</p><p>"In recent years there have been increases in immune-based diseases in turtles and dolphins," says DeWitt. One of the most <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22109712/" target="_blank">well-studied</a> health effects of PFAS is immune dysfunction. Most experiments are limited to humans, rodents and chickens, but researchers are piecing together the role of PFAS in marine immune issues.</p><p>One study concluded that PFOS, a phased-out PFAS that still circulates today, triggers <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5831401/" target="_blank">"chronic immune activation</a>" in bottlenose dolphins. A similar link between PFOS and susceptibility to disease appeared in <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16955890/" target="_blank">sea otters</a>. Other research links multiple PFAS to hormonal changes in <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2016.07.015" target="_blank">polar bear brains</a>. But these aquatic wildlife health studies are few and far between.</p><p>"PFAS in wildlife is kind of the <em>wild west</em>," says Robuck. "Wildlife are inherently difficult to study in a lot of ways."</p><p>Zeroing on the health effects for individual species is tricky because scientists lack baseline data about stress responses and pollutant levels. They have no choice but to presume consequences in wildlife based on hormonal, immune and reproductive effects in lab animals. For Robuck, that means judging how a pelican will respond to its measured PFAS levels according to health data collected from a chicken. "That's a really crappy comparison," she says.</p><p>In one sense, the method is conservative: Lab animals are well cared for, so their health effects may be a best-case scenario compared to the stressful baseline of wild animals' experience. But it also means we don't have an accurate sense of what dangerous thresholds are for most aquatic life — despite a parade of red flags.</p>
Endless Stream of Pollutants<p>Part of the problem is the sheer number of different compounds. Of the thousands of known PFAS, studies have only deduced health thresholds for a handful. Scientists screening their effects simply can't keep up with the pace.</p><p>The chemical compounds that fall under the PFAS umbrella are also not all the same. Some are long, bulky molecules; others are smaller and more agile. Some forms tend to naturally convert into others; others don't degrade whatsoever. Each molecule has the potential to be more toxic or bioaccumulative than the next. But for a lot of PFAS, Wagner says, scientists don't even have standardized methods of <em>detecting </em>them.</p><p>To make matters worse, even as some of the most dangerous chemicals are being phased out, companies are making alternatives. But they <a href="https://www.ewg.org/release/epa-genx-nearly-toxic-notorious-non-stick-chemicals-it-replaced" target="_blank">may not be any safer</a> than what they're replacing. And scientists have found these alternatives are also accumulating in the bodies of <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214158819300145?casa_token=6t17JUQM74gAAAAA:igHTxRV6z9RPhf1UNqwvbgD9iARSODj4WJtavRsmTbF6UUvn2P1YXirvBya2VC094wm8HMxb3A" target="_blank">fish and polar bears</a>.</p><p>"It seems that we haven't learned anything from the past," says Belén González-Gaya, an analytical chemist at the University of Basque Country in Spain. "We keep on substituting compounds [for] others without any knowledge of biological effects."</p><p><a href="https://www.ewg.org/experts/sydney-evans.php" target="_blank">Sydney Evans</a>, a research scientist for the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, suggests that researchers shouldn't have to prove the health risks for thousands of similar compounds in order to warrant regulatory action. "The burden needs to be on these companies and manufacturers to prove their compounds are safe," she says.</p><p>And while there is much we don't know about the majority of PFAS, experts argue that we do know enough to assume they all share fundamental features: persistence, bioaccumulation and health risks. For this reason a group of scientists recently <a href="https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.estlett.0c00255" target="_blank">published a call</a> for governments and companies to treat all PFAS, old and new, as a single hazardous group.</p><p>"It's really the only way that we can be ahead of the curve," says Wagner, who cowrote the article. "Rather than always realizing that a compound is toxic once it's already everywhere and we measure it on a remote ice-site somewhere in Greenland."</p><p>To shut off the flow of PFAS into the ocean, scientists say that manufacturers should phase out the chemicals and focus on proving safer alternatives.</p><p>With so many open questions, Robuck hopes to see research that more closely predicts threats to marine life — and by extension people, too.</p><p>"As humans, we rely on every natural resource under the sun," she says. "When we undercut a healthy environment, we undercut our own health."</p>
- What Are 'Forever Chemicals' and How Are They Getting in Your ... ›
- Forever Chemicals Contaminate More Drinking Water Than ... ›
- Trump to Veto Bill Intended to Keep Forever Chemicals out of ... ›
Fast fashion has been called the second dirtiest industry in the world, next to big oil, and how we color our clothes is a large part of the problem. Now, Colorifix, a UK biotech company founded by Cambridge University scientists, has developed a new way to dye clothes that doesn't harm the planet.
- Fast Fashion: Cheap Clothes = Huge Environmental Cost - EcoWatch ›
- 5 Tips for a More Earth-Conscious Wardrobe - EcoWatch ›
- Will America's Love for Cheap Clothing Doom the Sustainable ... ›
- Fast Fashion Is the Second Dirtiest Industry in the World, Next to Big ... ›
By Allison Johnson
Most people who buy organic do it because they want to eat healthier. It's true – switching to an organic diet rapidly decreases exposure to a wide range of pesticides, including glyphosate (the main ingredient in Roundup). According to a new study published in Environmental Research, glyphosate levels in families' bodies dropped 70% in just one week on an organic diet. The researchers concluded that diet is a major source of glyphosate exposure and that eating organic reduces exposure.
Friends of the Earth / https://foe.org/the-study/<p>But the health benefits of organic agriculture extend far beyond our individual dinner plates. Organic farming offers a comprehensive alternative to chemical agriculture, and it protects our soil, air, water, wildlife, and critically – our farming communities – from toxic pesticides.</p><p>The purpose of pesticides is to kill. So it's not surprising that widespread use of these chemicals poses a serious public health threat. Diet alone exposes us to a frightening cocktail of pesticide residues, and toxic pesticides pose much <a href="https://law.ucla.edu/news/exposure-and-interaction-potential-health-impacts-using-multiple-pesticides" target="_blank">more severe</a> health threats to <a href="https://www.organic-center.org/organic-agriculture-reducing-occupational-pesticide-exposure-farmers-and-farmworkers-0" target="_blank">farming communities</a>.</p><p>Food system workers and their families and communities – who are <a href="http://www.pesticidereform.org/environmental-justice/" target="_blank">disproportionately Latinx and low-income</a> – bear the brunt of <a href="https://www.farmworkerjustice.org/sites/default/files/aExposed%20and%20Ignored%20by%20Farmworker%20Justice%20singles%20compressed.pdf" target="_blank">harm from toxic pesticide use in agriculture</a>. Farmworkers are at risk from direct exposure to harmful chemicals when mixing and applying pesticides, as well as while working in fields; as a result, they suffer <a href="http://www.farmworkerjustice.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/aExposed-and-Ignored-by-Farmworker-Justice-singles-compressed.pdf" target="_blank">more chemical-related injuries</a> than any other U.S. workforce. Exposure also extends beyond the workplace. Workers can carry pesticides home on clothes, shoes, and skin, inadvertently exposing their children and other family members, and pesticide drift can harm people living, working, and learning near farms.</p><p>These exposure routes add up. And weaning our agricultural system off its addiction to toxic chemicals is an uphill battle.</p><p>We've seen recent wins on pesticide issues in the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/business/roundup-settlement-lawsuits.html#:~:text=Just%20weeks%20after%20the%20deal,warn%20consumers%20of%20the%20risk." target="_blank">courts</a> and in <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/media/2019/191009" target="_blank">some</a> <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/media/2020/200320" target="_blank">states</a>, but it can take decades of fighting to end the use of a single pesticide. For example, NRDC petitioned the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to end use of the brain-toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos in 2007; thirteen years later, <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/nrdc-takes-epa-court-again-protect-childrens-health" target="_blank">we're still in court</a> demanding that EPA protect public health. Meanwhile numerous similar <a href="https://www.nrdc.org/media/2018/181024-0" target="_blank">organophosphate</a> chemicals also remain in our fields and our bodies.</p>
By Katell Ané
The European Commission launched a new Farm to Fork strategy in an effort to reduce the social and environmental impact of the European food system. It is the newest strategy under the European Green Deal, setting sustainability targets for farmers, consumers, and policymakers.
- Researchers Are Creating a Drone to Study Wild Dolphins With Help ... ›
- These Whales Are Suffering a Slow-Motion Extinction - EcoWatch ›
By Alexander Freund
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab says he believes Tuesday's explosion in Beirut could have been caused by large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in the port.
What Is Ammonium Nitrate?<p>Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt that can be fairly cheaply produced from ammonia and nitric acid. It is soluble and often used as fertilizer, as nitrogen is needed for healthy plant development.</p><p>Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which in turn changes its chemical properties.</p><p>When large quantities of ammonium nitrate are stored in one place, heat is generated. If the amount is sufficiently vast, it can cause the chemical to ignite. Once a temperature of 170 C is reached, ammonium nitrate starts breaking down, emitting nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Any sudden ignition causes ammonium nitrate to decompose directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.</p>
Deadly Disasters<p>As ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical, many countries strictly regulate its use. Over the past 100 years, there have been several disasters involving the chemical.</p><p>In 1921, for example, a massive blast occurred at a BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. About 400 metric tons of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 559 people and injuring 1,977. The plant was largely destroyed in the blast, which could be heard as far away as Munich, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) distant.</p><p>In 2015, explosions caused by ammonium nitrate ripped through the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/china-convicts-dozens-for-last-years-giant-explosions-in-tianjin/a-36324321" target="_blank">Chinese port city of Tianjin</a>. Eight hundred metric tons of the chemical were said to have been stored along with other substances in a warehouse for hazardous materials. The blasts killed 173 people and destroyed an entire city district.</p><p>Two years earlier, in 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company site in Texas, killing 14 people. And in 2001, 31 people died in Toulouse, France, in an explosion caused by the chemical.</p>
Terrorist Favorite<p>In Germany, the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate is regulated by the explosives act. This is because the cheap, highly explosive and relatively easily obtainable material has in the past been used by terrorists to carry out attacks.</p><p>For example, in 1995, U.S. conspiracy theorist and gun enthusiast Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and other substances to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik also used ammonium nitrate in a car bomb attack in Oslo in 2011.</p>
- 5 Ways to Keep Unhealthy Nitrates and Nitrites Out of Your Body ... ›
- The Price of Our Fertilizer Addiction - EcoWatch ›
- 8 Disturbing Facts About Monsanto's Evil Twin—The Chemical ... ›
- How Bad Is Pollution From Beirut's Deadly Explosion? - EcoWatch ›
Sunscreen pollution is accelerating the demise of coral reefs globally by causing permanent DNA damage to coral. gonzalo martinez / iStock / Getty Images Plus
On July 29, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law a controversial bill prohibiting local governments from banning certain types of sunscreens.
- Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens - EcoWatch ›
- Hundreds of Sunscreens Don't Work or Have Unsafe Ingredients ... ›
- FDA Study: Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream ... ›
Police across the U.S. have used tear gas to disperse crowds assembling to protest the death of George Floyd and to decry police brutality, and infectious disease experts are urging them to stop.
- Federal Judge Bars Denver Police From Using Chemical Weapons ... ›
- Protestors Urged to Wear Masks, Wash Hands and Get Tested for ... ›
- Coronavirus: How Well Do Face Masks Protect Against Viruses ... ›
By Jake Johnson
A federal judge late Friday issued a temporary order barring the Denver Police Department from using projectiles and chemical weapons such as tear gas against peaceful demonstrators, condemning the conduct of some officers against protesters across the nation in recent days as "disgusting."