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Driving home from work last week, listening to NPR, I learned that the United Nations report on the progress the world is making toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) had just been released. The original MDGs were a set of eight goals crafted in 2000 to attack global poverty by 2015. Targets were established which required countries to gather consistent data on a range of issues, but are they always the right issues?

Worldwide, the poor, particularly those in the global south, are already suffering from the ravages of corporate exploitation and climate chaos. Photo credit: Global Greengrants Fund

For 15 years, we have all been hearing about the MDGs, now touted by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, as the “most successful anti-poverty movement in history.”

I was shocked to learn from NPR’s Nurith Aizenman that the method for establishing the goals and targets was “so casual they almost forgot something.” Aizenman was interviewing Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, who explained how the goals were set: “It’s brilliantly simple. It was myself with some chums in a room kind of thing.” And then Malloch-Brown admits, that just before they went to press, “Oh goodness me, we’ve forgotten the environment goal.”

The Right Honorable Lord Malloch-Brown has had a distinguished career as a journalist for The Economist, a consultant on communications and development, an employee of the World Bank, the Administrator of the UN Development Programme and other UN jobs, a UK government minister, and the Minister of State in Britain. I appreciate his honesty about the process, but wonder who his other chums might have been and if the room he mentions was smoked-filled. (I’m almost certain they didn’t include those most affected by poverty in the poorest parts of the world).

Why is the environment so often an afterthought for the world’s leaders, elite policy makers and the media? The New York Times, in covering the report, mentions climate change just once, in a paragraph on contentious issues to tackle in the “next set of development goals,” the so-called Sustainable Development Goals.

The main problem here, is the very emphasis on “development” as the answer to the world’s most pressing problems. As anthropologist Arturo Escobar has eloquently argued in Encountering Development, international development is akin to colonialism or “cultural imperialism” because poor countries have little means of declining politely.

According to Escobar, development has largely failed. Why? Because it is a problem even when it succeeds, in that it so strongly sets the terms for how people in poor countries must live, as explained in The Guardian.

I would challenge the notion that environmental concerns are necessarily compatible with development, especially for the communities and poor countries most affected. Sustainable development projects almost always discount local knowledge and often better serve the interests of elites (both within and outside the country), foreign donors, NGOs, international financial institutions, transnational corporations, and other international players.

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Too often, the most important facts are buried, as I found when reading through the Report. In the overview (the only section most people will peruse) and the mere ten pages  dedicated to the environmental sustainability goal, the finding that “98 percent of ozone-depleting substances” have been “eliminated since 1990” is aptly heralded, as is the statistic that “1.9 billion people have gained access to piped drinking water.” I’m not sure piped drinking water is actually an environmental issue, but won’t quibble.

The fact that global carbon dioxide emissions have increased by more than 50 percent since 1990 gets four paragraphs and a chart much later in the report on page 53.

The Mooi River Trash Pickers, South Africa. Photo credit: Hilary Byerly

Let’s deep six the really bad news.

It seems that worldwide “deforestation has slowed”… "but remains alarmingly high in many countries.” The report highlights the “overexploitation of marine fisheries,” a huge problem that is increasingly becoming better understood. It projects a rise in water scarcity, which currently affects 40 percent of the global population, but doesn’t cite climate change as a reason for “water stress.”

Booms in natural resource exploitation always lead to inequality. This is what I know: There may be less dire poverty in the world than 15 years ago, but never in history has there been such inequality (as explained in two Oxfam reports, here and here).

Worldwide, the poor, particularly those in the global south, are already suffering from the ravages of corporate exploitation and climate chaos. The top 1 percent of wealth holders may be enjoying their misbegotten gains, but they too are doomed if we don’t reverse or at least slow down the course of climate change.

I suspect the MDGs are actually helping the rich to get richer at the expense of the environment.

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Researchers in Pennsylvania have discovered that the prevalence of radon, a radioactive and carcinogenic gas, in people's homes and commercial buildings that are nearer to fracking sites has increased dramatically in the state since the unconventional and controversial gas drilling practice began in the state just over a decade ago

A drill worker covered in mud, shale, and drill cuttings seals off a well and cleans the blowout preventer at a Cabot Oil & Gas natural gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa. Photo credit: Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

Both odorless and tasteless, radon is a naturally-occurring gas released from bedrock minerals beneath the ground and is found in millions of homes across the country. However, in a study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, scientists compared the results of state-wide radon testing in Pennsylvania to find a significant correlation between unusually high levels of the deadly gas in some buildings (mostly residential homes) and the proliferation of fracking in certain areas of the state.

As State Impact Pennsylvania, the state's NPR affiliate, reports:

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed radon readings taken in some 860,000 buildings, mostly homes, from 1989 to 2013 and found that those in rural and suburban areas where most shale gas wells are located had a concentration of the cancer-causing radioactive gas that was 39 percent higher overall than those in urban areas.

It also found that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher concentration of radon than those served by municipal water systems.

And it showed radon levels in active gas-drilling counties rose significantly starting in 2004 when the state’s fracking boom began.

And according to Phys.org:

Since radon is naturally occurring, in areas without adequate ventilation—like many basements—radon can accumulate to levels that substantially increase the risk of lung cancer.

The study's first author is Joan A. Casey, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at the University of California-Berkeley and San Francisco, who earned her PhD at the Bloomberg School in 2014. She says it is unclear whether the excess radon in people's homes is coming from radium getting into well water through the fracking process, being released into the air near the gas wells or whether natural gas from shale contains more radon than conventional gas and it enters homes through cooking stoves and furnaces. Another possibility, she says, is that in the past decade buildings have been more tightly sealed, potentially trapping radon that gets inside and leading to increased indoor radon levels. In the past, most radon has entered homes through foundation cracks and other openings into buildings.

"By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface," Casey says. "Now there are a lot of potential ways that fracking may be distributing and spreading radon."

According to its summary, the study "found a statistically significant association between proximity to unconventional natural gas wells drilled in the Marcellus shale and first floor radon concentration," especially during summer months. Though radon is often thought of as seeping up through basement floors, the researchers explain that airborne radon can also enter homes through open windows. After smoking, prolonged exposure to radon gas is considered to be the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.

A gas production unit (foreground) cleans, depressurizes, and moderates gas temperatures at a Cabot Oil & Gas drill site in Kingsley, Pa. Photo credit: Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

"One plausible explanation for elevated radon levels in people's homes is the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years," says study leader Brian S. Schwartz, MD, a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School. "These findings worry us."

Significantly, the new study—Predictors of Indoor Radon Concentrations in Pennsylvania 1989-2013—directly conflicts with a study released by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection in January of this year which concluded that there was "little potential for additional radon exposure to the public" due to the widespread fracking activities across the state. Despite the conflicting findings, both DEP and the John Hopkins researchers acknowledged it was difficult to compare the studies as they had dissimilar methodologies and measured radon in significantly different ways.

Though gas industry officials were quick to criticize the findings of the new study, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, a former dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health and a former Environmental Protection Agency official, told NBC News that the industry can no longer ignore such worrying findings associated with its practices.

"The industry needs to abandon this excuse it hides behind which is, 'we've been doing this for 65 years, why are you worried'?" Goldstein said. "That's simply wrong. This ought to be treated as if it's something, like nanotechnology, which is a new thing that needs to be done carefully," he added.

Though people who buy new homes are often required to perform radon testing, Goldstein points out that "people who have been living in the house for a long time generally don't measure" for the deadly gas.

With the expansion of fracking across much of the state, he said, more people living near these drilling operation "should be measuring."

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a group of homeowners in North Carolina yesterday who unknowingly bought land contaminated by toxic chemicals and then attempted to sue the company responsible for dumping them there. 

Citing a lapse in a North Carolina state deadline, the high court decided that a law with a 10-year “statute of repose” can bar victims of toxic pollution from suing their polluters, even if they were not aware of the contamination until much later.

For more than 30 years residents of Camp Lejeune used contaminated water which lead to a barage of health problems, including cancer. Photo credit: Vietnam Veterans of America

"I am outraged by today’s Supreme Court decision which once again demonstrates the power of corporations over the rights of individual in this country," consumer advocate Erin Brockovich said yesterday. "It’s a sad day when victims are denied the most basic right to their day in court.”

According to the Environmental Working Group, the ruling carries sweeping implications for countless Americans threatened by toxic dumping, among them, the legal claims of thousands of Marines and their families poisoned by water contamination at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, NC.

“I am stunned by today’s decision. It’s a blow to all victims exposed to and suffering from the health effects of toxic pollution," said retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who uncovered the contamination at Camp Lejeune after losing his 9-year old daughter Janey to leukemia. "Science shows that the latency period of cancer after toxic chemical exposure is 20 or 30 years—this ruling means victims will not be able to sue a company for its wrongful pollution once the statute of repose has passed.” 

Veterans and their families have charged that exposure to trichloroethlylene—a known carcinogen—in polluted waters at Camp Lejeune over a 30-year period has caused at least 84 cases of male breast cancer and thousands more rare cancers, leukemia, birth defects and other serious illnesses.

“I have been fighting for the rights of veterans to see justice from the toxic pollution of Camp Lejeune for more than 20 years and this ruling is a tragedy for all of us,” said Ensminger. “Words cannot describe my disappointment in the Obama Administration for siding with the polluters in this case and the ultimate decision that has resulted in a harmful precedent for polluted communities across the country.”

In Aug. 2012, President Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act into law, which offered health benefits to those contaminated at Camp Lejeune. No word yet on what affects Monday's Supreme Court decision will have on the Janey Ensminger law.

President Barack Obama signs the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012,” in the Oval Office, Aug. 6, 2012. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

“We are deeply disappointed in today’s wrongheaded decision,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, one of Environmental Working Group’s partners in the fight for environmental health legislation. “We fear that this may set the precedent that the Obama Administration sought—denying justice to those harmed by toxic pollution at Camp Lejeune and elsewhere.”

“It is unconscionable that people may lose their right to seek justice before they even know they were harmed,” Brian continued. “Like Justice Ginsberg, we are concerned that this will encourage more secrecy and cover-ups like the one the government has engaged in over Camp Lejeune for decades. Ultimately, Congress may need to make clear its intent to protect the rights of victims of polluters no matter how long it takes for them to get cancer or die.”

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