Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans in farm country are contaminated with a suspected cancer-causing chemical from fertilizer, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.
The contaminant is nitrate, which gets into drinking water sources when chemical fertilizer or manure runs off poorly protected farm fields. Nitrate contaminates drinking water for more than 15 million people in 49 states, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture. Major farm states where the most people are at risk include California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.
Nitrate can be fatal to babies who ingest too much of it, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) legal limit for it in drinking water was set 25 years ago to protect infants from so-called blue baby syndrome. But the new report, Trouble in Farm Country, details the previously undocumented adult cancer risk posed by drinking water polluted with nitrate at only half the EPA's legal limit.
Data in the report comes from EWG's Tap Water Database, compiled from test results of almost 50,000 local water utilities in all 50 states. The data show that relatively few U.S. water supplies had nitrate levels in 2015 above the EPA's legal limit of 10 parts per million, or ppm. But more than 1,600 systems serving small towns had levels above 5 ppm, which studies by the National Cancer Institute have found to increase the risk of colon, kidney, ovarian and bladder cancers.
New Report Finds 'Erin Brockovich' Carcinogen in Water Supply for 250 Million Americans https://t.co/ScUL56WY04 @EcoWatch— EWG (@EWG)1503492241.0
"Farmers can take often simple steps to keep fertilizer and manure out of drinking water sources," said Craig Cox, senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources at EWG. "But far too few farmers are taking action and federal farm policy doesn't do enough to help them. The result is that rural Americans are burdened with the health risks and cleanup costs of unchecked farm pollution, when it makes more sense to keep nitrate and other contaminants from getting in the water in the first place."
The risk is acute in small towns like Pretty Prairie, Kansas, population 672, where for more than 20 years tap water has been contaminated with nitrate exceeding the EPA's legal limit. In 2014 and 2015 the level was twice the legal limit.
In Pretty Prairie, parents with infants under six months old, and nursing or pregnant women, can get free bottled water. But that does nothing to protect other residents from cancers that may not show up for years or decades. A new water treatment system to lower nitrate levels could cost $2.4 million—far more than $3,000 for every person in town.
Farmers are largely exempt from federal or state regulations that could stem water pollution. The Department of Agriculture pays billions of taxpayer dollars a year to farmers who adopt conservation practices to control runoff. But EWG's report shows that much of the money does not support the most effective practices in areas where drinking water is most at risk.
The upcoming federal farm bill, which Congress is beginning to consider, is a remarkable opportunity to help local communities secure clean and safe drinking water by keeping nitrate and other contaminants out of water in the first place.
"Under the new farm bill, Congress should insist on an iron-clad quid pro quo with farmers," said Cox. "Farmers and landowners who receive federal farm and crop insurance subsidies, courtesy of taxpayers, must agree to take simple steps to keep fertilizer and manure from getting into our water. Department of Agriculture conservation programs should be surgically targeted to areas where drinking water is most threatened."
A revolutionary plant that can suck carbon dioxide right from the air was unveiled on top of a waste recovery facility near Zurich on Wednesday.
Swiss company ClimeWorks is capturing CO2 from the air with the world's first commercial carbon removal technology. Its Direct Air Capture plant is capable of removing 900 tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere a year.
Here's how the technology works, per Fast Company:
"At the new Swiss plant, three stacked shipping containers each hold six of Climeworks' CO2 collectors. Small fans pull air into the collectors, where a sponge-like filter soaks up carbon dioxide. It takes two or three hours to fully saturate a filter, and then the process reverses: The box closes, and the collector is heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit, which releases the CO2 in a pure form that can be sold, made into other products, or buried underground."
The extracted greenhouse gas will be sent to nearby greenhouses as a fertilizer for tomatoes and cucumbers.
The company boasts that its technology could extend to other markets, including carbonation for soft drinks or the production of climate-neutral fuels.
Climeworks, founded by engineers Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher, has a goal of capturing one percent of global emissions by 2025. The company said 750,000 shipping container-sized units would be needed to fulfill this goal.
While that might sound like a lot, as Wurzbacher told Fast Company, the same number of shipping containers pass through the Port of Shanghai every two weeks.
Gebald commented that his company's CO2 collectors can be easily scaled up, and noted that carbon capture technology is essential to achieving net zero emissions by the end of the century, a goal of the Paris climate agreement.
"It is clear today that we won't be able to achieve zero gigatonnes by the end of the century without the use of carbon removal technologies," Gebald said.
Watch here to learn more about the facility:
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
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.
Less than two months after the disaster at West Fertilizer Co. in West, TX, another chemical plant erupted in flames Thursday just south of Baton Rouge, LA. The explosion at the Williams Olefins plant in Geismar killed at least one person and injured more than 73 employees. It remains too early to determine the cause of the explosion—and as of Friday the Occupational Safety and Health Administration had yet to visit the site. The plant produces the combustible and flammable chemicals ethylene and polymer grade propylene—used to make a range of plastic products.
“I’ve worked in plants for a few years, but I’ve never been that up close and personal with an explosion before. It felt like heat, intense heat,” plant worker Shavonne Stewart told The Advocate.
The explosion at the Williams Olefins plant is the latest in a series of similar incidents this year, notably, the disaster in West, TX—which killed 15 people—and a train blast in Maryland. The explosion at Williams Olefins stands apart, however, due to its direct tie to the natural gas boom.
The production of ethylene and propylene requires natural gas—explicitly, the use of methane. This past December the chemical juggernaut Dow Chemical Co. restarted a previously closed plant in Hahnville, LA. Like Williams, owner of the plant in Geismar, Dow saw the abundance of cheap shale gas as an opportunity to restart a previously unsuccessful venture. The Hahnville plant will be used to “boost ethylene and propylene capacity through 2017 because of cheap gas, used as a raw material and to power plants. Hydraulic fracturing [fracking] of shale rock formations caused a glut of gas supplies and sent prices to a decade low in April,” Bloomberg reported.
It is safe to assume chemical disasters such as the one this past Thursday will become more common as the availability of cheap natural gas encourages more expansion in the chemical industry. A 2008 report from the Center for American Progress on the 101 most dangerous chemical facilities in the U.S.—two of them in Louisiana—found that 80 million people “live within range of a catastrophic chemical release.”
Moreover, despite the efforts of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), many facilities remain vulnerable to any manner of industrial sabotage or disaster. The DHS currently monitors over 4,000 “high-risk” facilities—which did not include West Fertilizer Co. despite its clear vulnerability–under the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, which critics say is full of loopholes.
With the string of disasters in the last two months, the need for change in both the types of chemicals produced and the level of oversight provided by the DHS—which does not require companies to seek safer alternatives—is clear. How many more Wests can we tolerate?
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
By Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
The world quietly reached a milestone in the evolution of the human diet in 2011. For the first time in modern history, world farmed fish production topped beef production. The gap widened in 2012, with output from fish farming—also called aquaculture—reaching a record 66 million tons, compared with production of beef at 63 million tons. And 2013 may well be the first year that people eat more fish raised on farms than caught in the wild. More than just a crossing of lines, these trends illustrate the latest stage in a historic shift in food production—a shift that at its core is a story of natural limits.
As the global demand for animal protein grew more than fivefold over the second half of the twentieth century, humans began to press against the productivity constraints of the world’s rangelands and oceans. Annual beef production climbed from 19 million tons in 1950 to more than 50 million tons in the late 1980s. Over the same period, the wild fish catch ballooned from 17 million tons to almost 90 million tons. But since the late 1980s, the growth in beef production has slowed, and the reported wild fish catch has remained essentially flat.
The bottom line is that getting much more food from natural systems may not be possible. Much of the world’s grassland is stocked at or beyond capacity, and most of the world’s fisheries are fished to their limits or already crashing. Overstocked rangelands become obvious as the loss of protective vegetation leads to soil degradation, which at its worst can cause punishing dust and sand storms. Overexploited fisheries are less readily visible, but fishing patterns over time reveal that more effort is required to achieve the same size catch as in years past. Boats are using more fuel and traveling to more remote and deeper waters to bring in their haul. Anglers are pulling up smaller fish, and populations of some of the most popular food fish have collapsed.
Historically, people’s taste in eating animal protein was largely shaped by where they lived. In places with extensive grasslands, like in the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and Australia, people gravitated toward grazing livestock. Along coasts and on islands, as in Japan, wild fish tended to be the protein staple. Today, with little room for expanding the output from rangelands and the seas, producing more beef and fish for a growing and increasingly affluent world population has meant relying on feedlots for fattening cattle and on ponds, nets and pens for growing fish.
While open waters and grasslands can be self-sustaining if managed carefully, raising fish and livestock in concentrated operations requires inputs. Grain and soybeans have been inserted into the protein production food chain. Cattle consume seven pounds of grain or more to produce an additional pound of beef. This is twice as high as the grain rations for pigs, and over three times those of poultry.
Fish are far more efficient, typically taking less than two pounds of feed to add another pound of weight. Pork and poultry are the most widely eaten forms of animal protein worldwide, but farmed fish output is increasing the fastest. Average annual growth rates over the last five years have mirrored the relative efficiency of feed use, with the global production of farmed fish growing by nearly six percent a year, poultry by four percent, and pork by 1.7 percent—fast outpacing beef, which barely increased at all.
As grain and soybean prices have risen well above historical levels in recent years, the cost of producing grain-eating livestock has also gone up. Higher prices have nudged consumers away from the least-efficient feeders. This means more farmed fish and less beef. In the U.S., where the amount of meat in people's diets has been falling since 2004, average consumption of beef per person has dropped by more than 13 percent and that of chicken by five percent. U.S. fish consumption has also dropped, but just by two percent.
Beyond economic considerations, health and environmental concerns are also leading many people in industrial countries to reduce their beef intake. Meanwhile, fish are touted as healthy alternatives (save for the largest types, which have accumulated mercury from environmental pollution). Diets heavy in red meat have been associated with a higher risk for heart disease and colon cancer, among other ailments. Beef production has garnered a negative reputation for having a large carbon footprint and for destroying habitat, notably in the Brazilian Amazon. And excess nitrogen fertilizer applied to the fields of feed corn grown to satisfy the world’s livestock runs off into streams and rivers, sometimes flowing to coastal waters where it creates large algal blooms and low-oxygen “dead zones” where fish cannot survive.
While it is only recently that the limitations of natural systems have emerged on a global scale, the practice of aquaculture dates back millennia. China, which accounts for 62 percent of the world’s farmed fish, has long cultivated different types of carp that eat different things—phytoplankton, zooplankton, grass or detritus—together in a mini ecosystem. Today carp and their relatives are still the mainstay of Chinese aquaculture, making up nearly half the country’s output. Filter-feeding mollusks, like clams and oysters, account for close to a third. Carp, catfish and other species are also grown in Chinese rice paddies, where their waste can fertilize the grain crop. This is also practiced in Indonesia, Thailand and Egypt.
Unfortunately, not all aquaculture works this way. Some of the farmed fish that are quickly gaining popularity, like salmon and shrimp, are carnivorous species that eat fishmeal or fish oil produced from forage fish from the wild. Yet most forage fish stocks (think anchovies, herrings and sardines), which typically make up about a third of the world oceanic fish catch, are dangerously overharvested. Fish farmers are working to reduce the amount of fish meal and oil in their rations, but in the rush to meet ever-expanding world demand, the share of farmed fish being fed has increased because they can reach market size quickly. Norway, the world’s top farmed salmon producer, now imports more fish oil than any other country. China, the world’s leading shrimp producer, takes in some 30 percent of the fishmeal traded each year.
As cattle ranches have displaced biologically rich rainforests, fish farms have displaced mangrove forests that provide important fish nursery habitats and protect coasts during storms. Worldwide, aquaculture is thought to be responsible for more than half of all mangrove loss, mostly for shrimp farming. In the Philippines, some two thirds of the country’s mangroves—more than 100,000 hectares—have been removed for shrimp farming over the last 40 years.
Another problem with intensive confined animal feeding operations of all kinds, whether for farmed fish or for cattle, is not what gets extracted from the environment but what gets put in it. On a small-scale farm with livestock, animal waste can be used to fertilize crops. But putting large numbers of animals together transforms waste from an asset into a liability. Along with the vast quantities of waste, the antibiotic and parasite-killing chemicals used to deal with the unwanted disease and infestations that can spread easily in crowded conditions also can end up in surrounding ecosystems. The overuse of antibiotics in livestock operations can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, threatening both human and animal health. In the U.S., for instance, 80 percent of antibiotics use is in agriculture—and often not for treating sick animals but for promoting rapid weight gain.
Thus the solutions to our collision with the limitations of the natural systems that have long provided food have created their own host of problems. On a per person basis, beef consumption—now averaging less than 20 pounds (8.9 kilograms) each year globally—is unlikely to rebound to the 24 pounds eaten in the 1970s. But annual world fish consumption per person of 42 pounds—up from 25 pounds in the 1970s—is set to keep rising. With the additional fish coming from farms rather than the seas, the urgency of making aquaculture sustainable is clear.
On the fish feed front, fishmeal producers are incorporating more seafood scraps into their products; today roughly a third of fishmeal is made up of food fish trimmings and other by-products. And some fish farmers are substituting livestock and poultry processing wastes and plant-based feeds for fishmeal and oil, which does not sound particularly appetizing, but does reduce pressure on wild stocks. From a sustainability standpoint, however, it would be preferable to shift the balance back in favor of farmed fish raised without feeds based on food grains, oilseeds and protein from other animals.
Our global population of seven billion people, growing by nearly 80 million per year, cannot escape the limits of nature. To live within Earth’s natural boundaries requires rethinking meat and fish production practices to respect ecology. Most important, it means reducing demand by slowing population growth and, for those of us already living high on the food chain, eating less meat, milk, eggs and fish.