Regulators need to look at a broader range of polycyclic aromatic carbons — and their breakdown products — to understand a community's cancer risk.
By Elizabeth Gribkoff
Around the world, regulators have long relied on one compound to assess a community's lung cancer risk from a class of chemicals that we're exposed to while grilling burgers, waiting in traffic, and breathing in wood smoke from a fire.
That compound—benzo(a)pyrene, a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH)—however, only accounts for 11% of lung cancer risk associated with PAHs, MIT researchers found in a study published earlier this month in GeoHealth. Meanwhile, 17% of the PAH-linked cancer risk in the study came from the largely unregulated and under-studied breakdown products.
People can be exposed to PAHs in a variety of ways, from smoking to eating grilled food to breathing in tailpipe or wildfire emissions. Workers in coal plants, or those who use coal products, are considered especially at-risk to PAH exposure.
When people inhale PAH particles, the particles can travel deep into the lungs, causing cell mutations that can lead to lung cancer. Scientists are also concerned about exposure to PAHs through food and drinking water, as ingestion has been linked to birth defects and higher prevalence of developing breast, pancreatic, and colon cancers.
Experts say this study provides further evidence that both regulators and scientists need to factor in a broader range of PAH compounds when assessing a community's cancer risks — and determining what pollution reduction projects to fund.
"The big challenge in regulating air pollutants is: What are the most important sources and locations to prioritize?" Noelle Selin, director of MIT's Technology and Policy Program and a co-author of the paper, told EHN. "If you're using just a model of benzo(a) pyrene, you might not actually end up with the best answer in terms of the most beneficial reductions."
Toxic Breakdown Products
In the 1970s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified 16 of the more than 10,000 PAH compounds as pollutants of concern, and since then, that group of chemicals has been widely monitored around the world. One of those—benzo(a)pyrene—is still used as the toxicity benchmark for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in epidemiological studies, in large part because it's the best-studied PAH.
But in recent years, researchers have been questioning whether that narrow focus makes sense. In particular, researchers have been challenging the assumption that once PAH compounds break down in the atmosphere, they're no longer carcinogenic. "It turns out that some of the products that they can react to are even more toxic than what's initially emitted," said Selin.
As part of their work on a Superfund site in Maine, the MIT researchers examined global lung cancer risk from 16 PAH compounds and their degradation products — 48 altogether.
Once they had developed a global atmospheric model for PAH concentrations and fine-tuned it against real-world pollutant measurements, the researchers used animal studies to assess the associated lung cancer risk from different PAH compounds. They also estimated lung cancer risks based on epidemiological studies that use benzo(a)pyrene as a proxy for overall PAH cancer risk.
While they found that industrial regions in China, India, and Eastern Europe had the highest levels of lung cancer risk in both methods, animal experiments showed that changing benzo(a)pyrene emissions did not have a linear correlation with overall lung cancer risk from PAHs. For example, although simulated benzo(a)pyrene emissions were 3.5 times higher in Hong Kong than in India, the animal-based method predicted that Hong Kong residents are 12 times more likely to develop lung cancer, according to the paper.
While it's difficult to scale up the animal studies to human outcomes, that data provides researchers with a window into the "relative importance" of different PAH compounds in overall cancer risk, said Selin. The study also showed the importance of monitoring the sub-compounds that PAHs can break down into.
Staci Simonich, an environmental toxicology professor at Oregon State University who also researches PAHs but was not involved in this study, told EHN that the new paper likely under-estimated the cancer risk as the researchers did not include the class of heavier-weight PAH compounds described in her 2011 study as a significant contributor to cancer risk. Selin said that her group had not included those and other PAH compounds due to limitations in global monitoring data — including having almost no measurements from Africa.
Both Selin and Simonich stressed the need for future studies that assess the risk of PAH mixtures, noting that the total toxicity might not always be as simple as just adding up the toxicity of the individual compounds.
"I think regulators, whether it's in air, soil or sediment, are getting the message … in Europe and the U.S. that you really have to take a much broader look at PAHs in terms of exposure and risk," said Simonich.
Reposted with permission from the Environmental Health News.
Everyday cleaning products can emit harmful air pollution. SolStock / E+ / Getty Images
By Krystal Vasquez
A specific component of air particle pollution found in some common household products could be responsible for up to 900,000 premature deaths every year — 10 times greater than previous estimates, according to new research published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics.
While the majority of these components, referred to as anthropogenic secondary organic aerosols (ASOAs), are produced during the combustion of fossil fuels, some come from everyday use products, such as cleaning supplies, pesticides, or household paint.
"All those different smells you're getting from paint are different [volatile organic compounds] that are being emitted" into the air, Benjamin Nault, a research scientist at Aerodyne Research, Inc. and lead author of the study, told EHN. Once released, these gases, also known as VOCs, can transform into a new subset of stickier chemicals which clump together to form ASOAs.
Even though the majority of these compounds are produced indoors — and can play a role in creating poor indoor air quality — they will eventually escape outside through open windows or miniscule cracks in the foundation. In urban areas, ASOAs can make up a significant portion of the more commonly known pollutant, fine particulate matter (PM2.5).
"There's more people living in urban areas," Nault explains — more than 50% of the world's population, to be exact. With more people, "you need more of these everyday use products to paint all the apartments and townhouses, to put the asphalt down, [and] to clean everything up," said Nault. Urban populations are expected to increase by 150% by 2045.
Inhaling any type of particle — but especially PM 2.5 — can be detrimental to human health. According to the American Lung Association, potential health effects caused by prolonged exposure to PM 2.5 could include reduced lung function, the development of lung cancer, and an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Because of this, many countries have developed laws that restrict the amount of particle-forming VOCs that can be released into the air. In the U.S., the creation of these regulations — especially those that have targeted transportation — have led to a nation-wide improvement in air quality.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the pollution created from these everyday consumer items, which are also referred to as volatile chemical products (VCPs). In contrast to the success seen in the transportation sector, emissions from VCPs are "remaining relatively flat or going up," said Nault, because they're "less regulated and more directly tied to everyday use and population."
VCPs are also more difficult to regulate as a whole since there are thousands of compounds emitted by a diverse range of sources that span from deodorant to asphalt to outdoor barbecues. Plus, the stickiness that makes them so efficient at forming ASOAs also makes them difficult to measure.
This "makes it really hard to say, 'these are the emissions that need to be regulated'... to improve public health," said Nault.
Air Pollution and Premature Deaths
Volatile chemical products are difficult to regulate as a whole since there are thousands of compounds emitted by a diverse range of sources that span from deodorant to asphalt to outdoor barbecues.
The new study builds upon previous work, led by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, that showed that VCP emissions are contributing to a large fraction of the PM 2.5 formed in Los Angeles. Even before that, however, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "long accounted for emissions from volatile chemical products in the National Emissions Inventory (NEI)," a spokesperson told EHN through email, and has been assessing their impact on air quality since at least 1995.
But many of these findings have been limited to the U.S., which is why Nault and his international team of researchers expanded the scope of research and incorporated air quality data collected across several continents. They found that 37% of ASOAs, on average, were derived from VCPs in cities located in North America, Europe, and Asia. "Other places around the world have both emissions from tailpipes, but also from these everyday use products," said Nault. "This is a global thing."
They then used models to correlate concentrations of ASOA to premature mortality and compared their values to previous estimates. Nault and his team suspect between 340,000 to 900,000 premature deaths are caused by ASOAs.
"There weren't very many estimates of [ASOA-related] premature deaths in literature prior to this," said Nault, but the ones that existed significantly underestimated the number of deaths ASOA contributed to.
It's likely this percentage of VCP-derived pollution could grow in the future as transportation emissions continue to decrease and city populations continue to grow. That's why, in the U.S., the National Volatile Organic Compound Emission Standard requires manufacturers to reduce the amount of VOCs emitted by consumer products to prevent formation of ozone, another dangerous pollutant. However, when swapping out these compounds in accordance with the rules, it's possible companies may inadvertently add others that are better equipped to create ASOAs.
"One of the big things that we really need is to really look at these products that we use every day and look at what is actually in them, and what is coming out of them," said Nault.
Consumer Products Regulation
Proper regulation of both VCPs and transportation emissions is paramount if we want to prevent premature deaths caused by ASOAs, especially considering that these numbers could be an underestimation. "We think that there's differences within the stuff in the [aerosols] that could lead to very different differences in health and mortality," said Nault.
Research led by the Gwangju Institute of Science and Technology (GIST) in South Korea backs this up. "Right now, it is assumed that the toxicity is the same for all types of particles," Kihong Park, a professor at GIST, told EHN. However, upon exposing human and animal cells to different types of particles, he concluded that's likely not the case.
"Typically, chemical components such salt species, sulfates, and nitrates have less toxicity than [polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons], heavy metals, and organic compounds which are abundant in combustion-generated particles," Park explained. While he didn't assess the toxicity of VCP-derived particles in his original study, Park suspects that they might be comparable to aerosols that contain benzene or toluene, which elicited some of the highest toxicity scores in his study.
"In the future, we have to consider the differential toxicity of PM2.5, in addition to the amount of PM2.5, to better understand the effects of the PM2.5 on human health," said Park. "If the specific source for PM2.5 is more dangerous than others, we have to put more priority on the control of that source."
The U.S. has made great strides when it comes to improving our air quality. Much of this success has come from reducing transportation emissions. But we only focused on transportation because it "was very easy to recognize and say, 'this is where most of the pollution is coming from,'" said Nault.
Now, however, it's time to also turn our attention towards VCPs, he said.
The EPA spokesperson mentioned that the agency plans to "adopt new methods for quantifying emissions from volatile chemical products... as well as improve the representation of these emissions in air quality modeling efforts to better understand the relationship of volatile chemical products and criteria pollutants."
Still, more research needs to be done. "It's really tricky to try to track all those different [compounds]," explained Nault. Many ingredient lists are considered proprietary information and scientific equipment often struggles to measure all the compounds emitted from VCPs.
But "once we know what [these compounds] are and [which ones] contribute more to this PM 2.5," explained Nault, "then we can work on replacing those compounds with other ones" that might not produce as much pollution.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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From bamboo utensils to bamboo toothbrushes, household products made from bamboo are becoming more popular every year. If you have allergies, neck pain or wake up constantly to flip your pillow to the cold side, bamboo pillows have the potential to help you sleep peacefully through the night.
In this article, we'll explain the benefits of bamboo pillows and how they can help you on your journey to better sleep. We'll also recommend a few of the best pillows on the market so you can choose new bedding that's right for you.
Our Picks for the Top Bamboo Pillows
Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. Learn more about our review methodology here. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn a commission.
- Best Overall: Sleepsia Bamboo Memory Foam Pillow
- Best Luxury Pillow: Cosy House Collection Luxury Bamboo Pillow
- Best Body Pillow: Snuggle-Pedic Full Body Pillow
- Best Bamboo Alternative: Avocado Green Pillow
Why Switch to Bamboo Pillows?
Bamboo may be thought of as a tree-like structure because of its resilience, but it's actually classified as grass, which can be spun and woven in a soft, spongy material much like cotton. The pillows are made with a bamboo-based outer sleeve and stuffed with foam pieces in order to mold to your head position. Bamboo is considered naturally hypoallergenic and doesn't attract pests, bacterias or other fungi like most other plants.
Bedding materials such as cotton and silk don't have the concise cellulose structure that bamboo does. The material's cell structure allows more oxygen circulation, which keeps it lightweight and breathable so your pillow stays cooler longer.
Other than the sleeping benefits of the pillows, bamboo is considered an extremely sustainable material through production. The adaptable plant works as a great renewable resource, as it can thrive in any soil type and it is considered one of the fastest-growing plants in the world. As the bamboo is grown, it produces more oxygen than its calculated carbon emissions. And the cultivation of bamboo doesn't require fertilizer or pesticides, so ecosystems around the bamboo farms can be left unharmed.
Although bamboo itself is a completely natural and sustainable material, it has to undergo a strong chemical process in order to become a textile. Bamboo viscose, which is a type of rayon, is controversial among environmentalists because of this process, but overall, bamboo derivatives still produce lower carbon emissions than traditional polyester bedding. New bamboo textile processes are also being developed to be much more eco-friendly.
Full Reviews of Our Top Picks
When choosing our top recommended bamboo pillows, we looked at factors including:
- Comfort: Quality comes first when choosing bedding. The bamboo pillows chosen contain soft and snug adjustable filling to adapt to your preferred firmness.
- Materials: Most traditional pillows are stuffed with synthetic foam that contains VOCs, also known as volatile organic compounds. We ensure both the bamboo fabric and foam used in our picks are toxin-free.
- Cost: Bamboo pillows are usually a little more expensive than regular polyester or feather pillows because of their superior comfort and eco-friendly properties. It's important that the product you spend your money on is worth the cost and will hold up long-term.
- Customer reviews: We look at real and verified reviews in order to make sure each product is genuinely beneficial to customers' sleep.
Best Overall: Sleepsia Bamboo Memory Foam Pillow
The Sleepsia Bamboo Memory Foam Pillow is our pick for the overall best bamboo pillow because it offers just the right amount of support for side sleepers, stomach sleepers and back sleepers. Unlike most memory foam pillows, which use a large compact memory foam base, the shredded memory foam in these sleeper pillows allows you to easily add or remove the filling to meet your optimal comfortability. This memory foam pillow can support your neck, shoulders and upper back muscles without putting stress on your spine.
The bamboo cover as well as the memory foam allow for better air circulation to keep you from feeling too warm. These bamboo pillowcases are antibacterial as well as machine washable, so you can always have a clean sleep. The sizes range from standard to king-size pillows and are sold in a compact box that can easily be reused or recycled after purchasing.
Customer Rating: 4.1 out of 5 stars with over 6,000 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: Sleepsia's memory foam pillow uses CertiPUR-US® certified safe foam to ensure low emissions and prohibits the use of harmful components.
Best Luxury Pillow: Cosy House Collection Luxury Bamboo Pillow
Cosy House's king- and queen-size pillows are made with high-quality, bamboo-derived rayon fabric. The premium bamboo fibers increase airflow and temperature control so you won't have to flip to the cool side of your pillow through the night. If the pillows get dirty or flat over time, simply throw them in the washer and dryer to make them feel brand new again.
These bamboo pillows have a middle layer of transitional foam for extra durability as well as a safe, non-toxic filling to ensure you can sleep comfortably. If you're not satisfied with the luxurious product, Cosy House offers a satisfaction guarantee and will answer any questions or concerns in a timely manner.
Customer Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars with over 2,300 Amazon ratings.
Why Buy: Cosy House products are Amazon's Choice for luxury bamboo pillows and are CertiPUR-US certified. They contain premium materials to ensure you get the best possible sleep.
Best Body Pillow: Snuggle-Pedic Full Body Pillow
If you have back pain and neck pain, the Snuggle-Pedic Full Body Pillow will be able to support your full body to relieve tension while sleeping. The 4.5-foot-long pillow works great as a pregnancy pillow or for anyone seeking premium comfort and support.
The Snuggle-Pedic was developed by chiropractors who wanted to help restless patients get a good night's sleep. The doctors found that your body is able to evenly distribute its weight and naturally align your spine when hugging a body pillow. Inside the pillow is a cooling material that is designed to absorb heat and help people prone to night sweats and overheating. The shredded memory foam pillow can be easily maneuvered to your body's comfort and is fully machine washable if you want to clean or re-fluff it for long-lasting coziness.
Customer Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars with over 14,300 Amazon ratings
Why Buy: Made in the USA and GreenGuard Gold certified, Snuggle-Pedic ensures non-toxic stuffing.
Best alternative: Avocado Green Pillow
If bamboo pillows just aren't for you, Avocado's 100% organic cotton pillow is just as sustainable and comfy. When you open the sleeve, the pillow is divided into three main materials. The outer layer consists of a quilt-like cover made from high-quality cotton. The soft organic latex ribbons underneath provide structure and customizable firmness to support all sleep positions. Finally, the pillow is stuffed with eco-friendly kapok tree fiber which is hypoallergenic, biodegradable and never grown with pesticides.
Avocado provides an extra bag of filling if you want to adjust your volume for a softer or more extra firm pillow. You can wash your removable cotton pillow cover if needed, but there's no need to use bleach and hanging it to dry will keep it from naturally shrinking. The soft pillows come in every size necessary and pair well with Avocado's green mattress if you're determined to sleep well with sustainable peace of mind.
Customer Rating: 4.4 out of 5 stars with over 5,000 ratings on the Avocado website
Why Buy: Vegan, GreenGuard certified and considered a carbon-negative business, Avocado's Green Pillow has passed some of the most strict emissions and sustainability testing for sleeping products on the market today.
Frequently Asked Questions: Bamboo Pillows
Is a bamboo pillow sustainable?
Bamboo is considered a great renewable resource that can be used in many different household items and is a great alternative to traditional polyester bedding products. The fast-growing plant has such a high carbon to oxygen rate that it actually offsets carbon emissions, and it doesn't require any fertilization or pesticides that could potentially cause runoff production. However, the production process to turn bamboo into a textile can create toxins that leach into the environment. Still, it's a better alternative to full synthetic materials.
What is so special about bamboo pillows?Bamboo bed pillows are a great product to try if you have trouble sleeping because of allergy issues, breathing problems or overheating at night. They are known for their distinct fibers that encourage airflow and make the pillows so lightweight. The breathable features have shown evidence of hypoallergenic properties and create a natural cooling to help sleepers get a good night of rest.
By Andrew Blok
A record-setting fish was pulled from Hamilton Harbor at the western tip of Lake Ontario in 2015 and the world is learning about it just now.
The fish, a brown bullhead, contained 915 particles—a mix of microplastics, synthetic materials containing flame retardants or plasticizers, dyed cellulose fibers, and more—in its body. It was the most particles ever recorded in a fish.
"In 2015 we knew a lot less about microplastics and contamination in fish. I was expecting to see no particles in most fish," Keenan Munno, then a graduate student at the University of Toronto, told EHN. Every sampled fish had ingested some particles. Munno's 2015 master's work has spun out into six years' worth of research, including the new Conservation Biology paper that reports these findings.
The findings point to the ubiquity of microplastics and other harmful human-made particles in the Great Lakes and the extreme exposure some fish experience—especially those living in urban-adjacent waters. While direct links between microplastics and fish and human health are still an issue of emerging science, finding plastics within fish at such high amounts is concerning.
Great Lakes Plastics Problem
Researchers collected fish from three locations in both Lake Superior, Lake Ontario and the Humber River (a tributary of Lake Ontario). In all they gathered 212 fish and 12,442 particles.
In Lake Ontario, besides the record-setting bullhead, white suckers from Humber Bay and Toronto Harbor had 519 and 510 particles, respectively. A longnose sucker from Mountain Bay in Lake Superior had 790 particles. In the Humber River even common shiners, minnows which rarely get to eight inches long, had up to 68 particles.
"It was obviously concerning," said Munno, now a research assistant at University of Toronto. She extracted and counted all the microplastics and other particles from the fish's digestive tracts by hand. That includes all 915 record-setting particles.
"You feel bad for the fish that's eaten that much plastic," Munno said.
Of the human-made particles found in the group of fish, 59% were plastics in Lake Ontario, 54% in Humber River, and 35% in Lake Superior.
This new study is part of a growing and concerning body of research on plastics in the Great Lakes.
In a 2013 study, researchers sampled Great Lakes surface water and found an average of 43,000 microplastic particles per square kilometer. Near major cities they measured concentrations of 466,000 microplastics per square kilometer.
Recent research estimated that Great Lakes algae could be tangling with one trillion microplastics.
"Globally, 19-21 million tonnes of plastic waste were estimated to enter aquatic ecosystems in 2016," the study's authors wrote. That number is expected to double by 2030.
Microplastics' Impacts on Humans
Beach plastic litter in Norway. Bo Eide / Flickr
"I've been studying microplastics for a long time and this is the study that blew me away," Chelsea Rochman, a coauthor on the study and University of Toronto professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, told EHN.
Rochman began her microplastics research in the trash gyres in the ocean. There she'd find microplastics in one out of 11 fish and usually only a couple of pieces in a single fish. While the findings were concerning, some people said the threat to animals was well into the future.
"We're finding that there are concentrations of microplastic in certain areas in the environment where the concentrations are so high that the animals might be at risk today," Rochman said.
Still unpublished research from Rochman's lab by a colleague of Munno's will show that microplastics can travel from the digestive tract to the fillets of the fish.
Microplastics in fish fillets could be one way they get to humans.
While research hasn't drawn robust links between microplastics and specific health problems in humans, they've been connected to neurotoxicity, metabolism and immunity disruption, and cancer in other laboratory tests, Atanu Sarkar, a professor of environmental and occupational health at Memorial University of Newfoundland, told EHN. Microplastics accumulate in the organs of mice exposed to them.
Even if they're not eaten by people, fish used as fertilizer or pet food can spread microplastics throughout the environment far from aquatic ecosystems, he said.
Rochman has worked to mitigate plastic pollution in Lake Ontario with the U of T Trash Team. The Trash Team and its partners have installed filters on washing machines to capture plastic microfibers and sea bins, which capture microplastics in the lake.
"In one sea bin sample—a 24-hour sample, one bin—we find hundreds of microplastics," Rochman said. The laundry filters likely capture one million in a month.
While microplastics continue to flood the Great Lakes, each one caught and removed is a small step in the right direction.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Krystal Vasquez
Before you head out to see your local fireworks display this 4th of July, you might want to consider closing your windows, replacing your HVAC filter, and running your air purifier on full blast.
While most of us know that fireworks can cause outdoor air quality to reach hazardous levels, few are aware that this pollution can affect our indoor air quality as well.
According to a recent study in Science of the Total Environment, 4th of July firework celebrations can cause concentrations of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) to rise to unhealthy levels in nearby buildings — an observation also noted by a separate set of researchers during the Chinese Spring Festival back in 2014.
These findings were made as a part of a longer, year-long study in which the researchers set up air monitoring equipment in a commercial building located outside of Salt Lake City, Utah. They wanted to determine how different forms of outdoor pollution affected indoor air quality. In the case of fireworks, the effects were noticeable "almost immediately," the researchers wrote.
In addition, both studies found this indoor pollution could remain elevated for hours after the firework displays ended. Considering that even short-term exposures to PM 2.5 can result in lung irritation, shortness of breath, and even the aggravation of medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease, this implies that this beloved holiday tradition could end up significantly impacting our health. The tiny airborne particles can also become even more toxic when mixing with pollution in our home.
Picking Up Extra Toxics in the Home
The PM 2.5 produced by fireworks can be uniquely dangerous. It usually contains toxic compounds such as copper and lead, which are often added as coloring agents. Scientists also point out that these particles can end up accumulating even more harmful substances once they enter our homes, which adds to the health consequences associated with inhaling them.
"If it's a really hot evening, but you had the air conditioning on in your house... then when that particle comes in, it might pick up some phthalates — those little plasticizer molecules in your vinyl and your linoleum flooring," Delphine Farmer, an atmospheric chemist and professor at Colorado State University who was not involved with the above studies, told EHN. Phthalates are known endocrine disruptors that are linked with the development of medical conditions, such as asthma and fertility issues. And by hitching a ride on the particle, Farmer said, "you have some small probability of breathing that particle in."
Alternatively, it can also "hit one of these many surfaces [in your home] and just get stuck," she said. However, Farmer points out that this doesn't mean the danger is over: "[These particles] will live to see another day" when they are eventually released back into the air.
This is something that scientists have seen with cigarette smoke. "Things like thirdhand smoke are a really good example of where you can see effects certainly months and years later," Farmer said.
Protecting Yourself From Polluted Indoor Air
There are ways we can enjoy the holiday and protect ourselves. "Consider reducing outdoor air — so closing windows, running any fan… [and] getting as good a filter into your HVAC system as your system can handle and you can afford," Farmer said.
And if you're in an area currently experiencing a heat wave in an area where AC is rare and need to keep your windows open at night, don't worry. There's a solution for you, too.
"Consider box fans with filters attached to them. They turn out to be incredibly effective in terms of filtering air, and you can just set one of those up for about $10 or $20," Farmer said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Cameron Oglesby
As North Carolina heads into another hurricane season, some residents and organizations fear the stormy season will again flood communities with hog waste.
The state's hog waste management works by funneling feces, urine, and blood from hog farms into massive open waste lagoons, which let off foul odors and methane gas. When the lagoons become full, the waste water is often sprayed onto fields as nutrients for crops. The waste, which contains harmful bacteria like E. coli or salmonella, can wash off into local waterways and cause groundwater contamination and fish kills.
Hurricanes hasten this pollution. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd swept through the region, causing significant damage to swine operations and flooding waste lagoons.
"There is nothing outdated about the lagoon and sprayfield system," said CEO of the North Carolina Pork Producers Council, Roy Lee Lindsey in a statement to EHN. "It remains the most sustainable manner for us to manage our farms."
But the state, environmental advocates, and community members disagree. And Will Hendrick, environmental justice advocate for the North Carolina Conservation Network and staff attorney with the Waterkeeper Alliance's Pure Farms program, told EHN the industry has not made "meaningful changes" in response to increasingly frequent and severe storms.
Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting a higher than average hurricane season for North Carolina in 2021. On the Atlantic coast the agency estimates 16 to 20 major named storms, seven to 10 hurricanes, and three to five major hurricanes.
As climate change threatens to create more intense storms in the years to come, and with concerns over the location of hog farms in flood prone parts of the state coupled with lax regulatory oversight, how is the hog industry preparing for these increasingly devastating events?
Hog Farms in North Carolina's 100-year Flood Plain
In 2018, Hurricane Florence hit, leading to damage or flooding in at least 110 lagoons.
Waterkeeper Alliance Inc. / Flickr
Compared to other states in the southeast U.S., North Carolina's concentration of industrial animal agriculture in the coastal plain makes it uniquely vulnerable to storms. The region is number one for poultry farms and number two for swine in the U.S., and the majority of these farms are located in the southeast part of the state. There are roughly 2,400 hog farms in the state, many of which are family operations that work for corporate giants like Smithfield or Tyson Foods.
"This industry has concentrated in the most vulnerable part of North Carolina [for] these increasingly frequent and severe storms," Hendrick said.
The NC Pork Producers Council acknowledged this problem.
"Over the past two decades we've partnered with the State of North Carolina and closed lagoons located in 100-year flood plains," Lindsey said. Lindsey is referring to the voluntary North Carolina Floodplain Buyout Program, which has led to the permanent closure of 43 hog farms and around 103 waste lagoons from 2000 after Hurricane Floyd to summer 2020.
More North Carolina hog farmers would participate in the buyout program if there was more funding, Lindsey added. "This is a place where our industry and our critics could work together to secure additional funding and continue our efforts to reduce operations in 100-year flood plains."
In 2018, in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, Governor Roy Cooper included in his recovery recommendations funding for "either buyout industrial animal operations in the 500-year flood plain or to help them convert to better technology." From that recommendation, the legislature committed $5 million to expand the Floodplain Buyout Program. Data on these additional buyouts is not yet available.
But Hendrick said that funding for these buyout programs relies on taxpayers dollars, raising the question of whether North Carolinians should have to foot the bill for corporate mismanagement.
Communications director for the NC Pork Council Jen Kendrick told EHN that the hog industry has been "very proactive in what [it does] to prepare for hurricanes ever since Hurricane Floyd in 1999," providing an article, written by the Pork Council, outlining how the media and environmental nonprofits blew the impacts of Hurricane Florence on hog lagoon flooding out of proportion. The report said 98 percent of hog lagoons "performed as intended" during the 2018 hurricane and that state agency reports confirmed that hog farms were not a lasting source of environmental damage. Neither Kendrick, Lindsey, nor the article elaborated on what "performed as intended" means.
Hendrick said the report focuses on impacts to lagoons and overlooks "the significant pollution resulting from the runoff of their land applied waste." In North Carolina, Hurricane Floyd, Hurricane Matthew in 2016, and Hurricane Florence led to the failure of hundreds of waste lagoons, resulting in the contamination of waterways such as the South River and tributaries of the Cape Fear, Neuse and Tar rivers. This is not inclusive of runoff of waste from sprayfields, which can occur anytime there is a heavy rain.
According to a 2016 analysis by the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance, of the roughly 4,000 hog farms in the state, about 306 are located within the 100-year flood plain or within a half mile of a public well, the majority concentrated around predominantly Black and low-income communities in Duplin and Sampson County.
Hendrick pointed out that in an attempt to mitigate waste runoff, in 2019 the NC Department of Environmental Quality (NC DEQ) edited the swine waste management system general permit to increase the amount of time from four hours to 12 hours after a National Weather Service storm warning that a farmer is required to stop any spraying of waste onto fields.
"We see consistently, the farm operators are concerned about the accumulation of rainwater in their lagoons, so they begin land applying as furiously and fast as they can in advance of a storm," Hendrick said. "It's making it even more likely that the waste that they just land-applied is going to end up in our rivers, lakes, and streams."
In 2018, EHN witnessed seven hog operations illegally spraying waste onto fields prior to Florence's landfall.
EHN reached out to Smithfield Foods, the largest producer of pork in the country and a major North Carolina producer, for comment on their strategy to adapt to heavier storms in North Carolina. They declined to comment.
Hog Death During Storms
Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Director for the NC Conservation Network and a resident of Duplin County, a North Carolina hog farm hotspot, highlighted the additional problem of hog mortality and disposal during these storms.
"They don't get picked up on a regular basis... by the time they pick them up decomposition has already started and you can see the fluid from that decomposition dripping from the trucks on the road," she told EHN.
She said when these animals are collected, the flies, the odor, and other disease carrying vectors have already settled and create additional health concerns for nearby communities and for water quality.
The issue of hog mortality around concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) first came up in 2014 when the Porcine Epidemic Diarrhea Virus (PEDv) rocked the pork industry in the U.S. and Canada, leading to the death of millions of pigs. At the time, the Waterkeeper Alliance called out the haphazard handling of the dead hogs — which were disposed of in mass graves in what was often the 100-year flood plain — and brought forward concerns over groundwater contamination from the decomposing bodies.
Lindsey said that since Hurricane Floyd, storm-caused hog mortality has gone down. "Farmers and their partner companies work hard in preparation for storms to make sure our animals are cared for during a storm," he said, "Barns that are in flood-prone areas are cleared before a storm and the animals moved to higher ground. The results speak for themselves. We have very little animal mortality during storms."
However, during Hurricane Matthew in 2016, the Department of Agriculture estimated around 2,800 hogs died during the storm. Florence was worse, killing an estimated 5,500 hogs, along with more than 3.4 million chickens.
Hendrick also said that when it comes to the handling of animal mortality, it is once again the taxpayer who is "footing the bill" through the expansion of tax dollars to the Department of Agriculture to help with mortality management services.
North Carolina Hog Farming Regulation
Hendrick, and Communications Director for the NC Conservation Network, Brian Powell, pointed out that one of the reasons that the handling of these waste management systems has been so lax is because the DEQ's regional offices are less capable of responding to issues as a result of "draconian budget cuts" specifically targeting those offices.
"For instance, the DEQ Wilmington Regional Office, which would be responding to breaches or impacts in Duplin County, has seen a significant decrease in staffing as a result of decisions by the legislature," said Hendrick. In 2019, the nonpartisan environmental accountability nonprofit the Environmental Integrity Project found the DEQ lost 34 percent of its funding for pollution control programs between 2008 and 2018, resulting in a loss of more than 370 staff positions over the same period and making it one of the states with the largest budget cuts alongside New York, Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana. Adjusting for inflation, if the DEQ's budget had remained consistent over the years, it should have received $136 million in 2018 alone. It only received $80 million for fiscal year 2020.
Hog farms are required by law to get an annual inspection from the DEQ. But Hendrick said that because of staff cuts, the DEQ has trouble meeting that quota, oftentimes resulting in infrequent visits that last "less than 20 minutes," which is a fact that one of the DEQ's top officials in the inspection of North Carolina hog operations, Christine Lawson, admitted in the recent Artis v. Murphy-Brown nuisance suit brought against members of the hog industry. These annual inspections are separate from visits scheduled around specific community complaints, which Hendrick said consist of meetings where "operators are pre-notified and often scramble to demonstrate compliance."
EHN reached out to the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality's Division of Water Infrastructure that handles information on swine operation, but they didn't respond.
New Hog Farming Waste Technology
"The lagoon and sprayfield system was developed by experts at North Carolina State University specifically for the soil and water characteristics of North Carolina," said Lindsey. "It is the model for swine farms across the country. While we continuously look for ways to improve the system, it remains the best available option for our farms."
But Hendrick, Powell, and White-Williamson said that the only thing stopping the industry from dropping what the state considers an outdated system is their unwillingness to invest in superior technology.
"It's just a matter of acknowledging the recent history, and preparing for its continuation, instead of pretending like there's nothing to see here, there's no problem with the status quo, and as long as we continue to manage this waste in the way we have, there won't be any problems," Hendrick said.
Environmental advocates and residents in the state have been calling for a dismantling of the lagoon and sprayfield system, in favor of "environmentally superior technologies," such as a system called Terra Blue, which would replace open cesspools with closed tanks and reduce ammonia through the introduction of nitrogen consuming bacteria. Lindsey said that this technology was not economically feasible, despite its passing of all government and industry technical, operational, and environmental standards.
Others have pointed to Advanced Nitrification/Denitrification (AND) like major pork producer Smithfield uses in its Missouri operations to reduce the amount of ammonia coming off of cesspools. The industry has also looked to biogas investment as an economically viable alternative, though that comes with its own set of community and environmental health concerns.
Powell added that for increasingly intense hurricanes specifically, the issue also depends on the development of statewide storm and flood resilience programs. As North Carolina comes up on another hurricane season in June, groups like the Eastern NC Recovery and Resilience Alliance, a coalition of local governments created to better prepare the region for extreme weather events, have been calling for legislative moves that would fund a statewide flood blueprint, which would better position governments to address the technical aspects of flood mitigation, including predictive hydrologic modeling.
In March, the North Carolina Coastal Federation also came out with a blueprint for how communities could use nature-based flood solutions, including backyard rain gardens, watershed restoration, and strategies that limit impermeable surfaces like concrete or asphalt, to combat the projected increase in rainfall.
"To the extent that we begin implementing some of those solutions and coming up with a statewide flood management strategy, there probably will be beneficial impacts to agricultural facilities in addition to communities," Powell said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Kristina Marusic
Living among fracking wells is linked to higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to heart attacks, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Research, compared heart attack rates in Pennsylvania counties with fracking to demographically similar counties in New York where fracking is banned.
"There's a large body of literature linking air pollution with poor cardiovascular health and heart attacks, but this is really the first study to look at this from a population level related to fracking," Elaine Hill, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center and one of the study's co-authors, told EHN.
Hill and her colleagues looked at hospitalization and mortality records in 47 counties in New York and Pennsylvania from 2005-2014 (the most recent data available at the time the study was initiated) and found that heart attack hospitalization rates were higher on the Pennsylvania side of the border by 1.4–2.8 percent, depending on the average age and density of fracking wells in a given county. Living near a higher density of wells translated to a greater risk of heart attacks.
They also found that middle-aged men living on the Pennsylvania side of the border were 5.4 percent more likely to die of a heart attack than their counterparts in New York. The authors speculate that this link may be stronger in middle-aged men because they're more likely to work in the industry and have higher levels of exposure as a result.
The researchers were not able to control for lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking due to a lack of data, but they did assess demographics at the county-level to ensure they were looking at communities with similar economic and racial makeups on both sides of the border. They analyzed different age groups separately across the counties, and also adjusted for coal production in each county (another factor that can increase heart attack risk) and for rates of access to health insurance, which may influence whether people go to the hospital when having a heart attack.
Drilling rig in PotterCounty, PA. Ted Auch / FracTracker Alliance, 2019
While numerous studies have compared economic differences between the two states, this is the first to use this "natural experiment" to compare human health outcomes on both sides of the border. A 2020 study conducted by veterinarians similarly found that horses raised near fracking wells on the Pennsylvania side of the border had higher rates of a rare birth defect than horses raised by the same farmer on the New York side.
Fracking and the increased truck traffic created by the industry raise levels of air pollution significantly, and exposure to air pollution raises heart attack risk. Living near fracking wells is also linked to heightened stress levels, which is another contributor to cardiovascular disease.
Alina Denham, the study's lead author, said their findings are in line with previous research. She pointed to a 2019 paper that found higher levels of physical markers associated with heart attack risk in people who live near fracking. Still she said, "Additional research is needed to figure out exactly how exposure to fracking wells leads to increased heart attack risk."
Fracking is more concentrated in rural communities, many of which lack health care access. The study's authors speculated that this could also contribute to worse cardiovascular health outcomes. Hill said she hopes policymakers will use their findings to create oil and gas policies that protect public health.
"I'm aware that my previous work influenced the ban in New York," Hill said. "I think there are also other policy decisions that can let the industry continue to thrive and let people continue to have these jobs while also ensuring that everybody is more protected. Things like mitigating emissions, recycling waste water—even using electric vehicles instead of diesel to transport materials. There's much room for improvement."
Reposted with permission from the Environmental Health News.
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By Nate Seltenrich
Synthetic dyes used as colorants in many common foods and drinks can negatively affect attention and activity in children, according to a comprehensive review of existing evidence published this month by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).
Funded by the California legislature in 2018, the new report involved a literature review, scientific symposium for experts, peer review process, and public comment period. Its conclusions about the behavioral effects of food dyes are grounded in the results of 27 clinical trials in children performed on four continents over the last 45 years, as well as animal studies and research into the mechanisms through which dyes exert their behavioral effects.
Food dyes in products such as breakfast cereals, juice and soft drinks, frozen dairy desserts, candies, and icings were linked to adverse neurobehavioral outcomes in children including inattentiveness, hyperactivity, and restlessness. Animal studies also revealed effects on activity, memory, and learning.
The report is the most rigorous assessment of the behavioral effects of food dyes ever conducted, said Lisa Lefferts, a senior scientist with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. (Editor's note: Lefferts previously worked as an editor at EHN).
Lefferts has been tracking the issue for years and through the Center published her own report on the link between synthetic food dyes and behavioral problems in children in 2016. In it she called for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to either revoke approvals for all food dyes or institute a federal labeling rule.
The European Union enacted such a law in 2010 that requires most dyed foods to bear a label warning consumers that food colorings "may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." In response, many food manufacturers reformulated their products for the European market to avoid the dyes, and thus the label.
But many left the dyes in their products for the U.S. market, where awareness of the issue has remained low, said Lefferts. "In our experience, most consumers have no idea that something that is allowed in the food supply by the FDA could trigger adverse behaviors," she told EHN.
A California State Senate bill introduced in February and backed by the new report would require a similar warning label on foods sold in the state. But it was abruptly withdrawn from the Senate Health Committee on April 28, the day of its scheduled hearing, by sponsor Senator Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont).
In a press release, Wieckowski said he pulled the bill "to take additional time to brief other senators and make sure they understand the science in the OEHHA report" given that it had been published only 12 days earlier. The bill, which Lefferts said she sees as a wedge for widespread reformulation of dyed foods in the U.S, is now slated to be heard in January 2022.
Widespread Food Dye Exposure
An example of food dyes. jessica / flickr
The FDA last formally reviewed the issue in 2011, when it concluded that a causal link between children's consumption of synthetic color additives and behavioral effects had not been established. At the time the agency also commissioned an exposure assessment of all seven color additives approved for use in food in the U.S.: FD&C Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6.
The results of this study, later presented in 2014, revealed that between 2007 and 2010, some dyes were consumed on an almost daily basis by up to 98 percent of 2-to-5-year-olds, 95 percent of teenage boys aged 13-18, and 94 percent of the entire U.S. population aged 2 and up.
"Exposure in children affects attention and behavior across the whole spectrum of the population, and it's a widely distributed exposure," Mark Miller, a public health medical officer with OEHHA and one of 13 authors of the report, told EHN. "Overall it means that the impact is subject to being fairly large."
Mechanistic studies reviewed by Miller and the report's other authors reveal that food dyes may impact behavior through a variety of pathways including neurotransmitters, hormones, and oxidative stress. More research is needed on how dyes are absorbed, distributed, and metabolized in the body, they note.
An FDA spokesperson said that the agency had received and was reviewing the report. "The FDA will continue to engage in the scientific and regulatory review of color additives to evaluate their potential impact on various populations, including children, and act when necessary to ensure that the products marketed to consumers are safe and properly labeled," the statement read.
"Parents who wish to limit synthetic color additives in their children's diet may check the food ingredient list on labels, where they are required to be listed."
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Quinn McVeigh
The study, published in Applied Geochemistry, found that almost every groundwater sample across 32 U.S. aquifers had detectable strontium levels, while 2.3 percent exceeded 4 milligrams per liter (mg/L), the maximum amount that people should consume routinely, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The public and private wells extending from these aquifers provide drinking water for 2.3 million people.
While low amounts of natural strontium are safe and even beneficial for the human body, these high concentrations can stunt bone growth in children who lack adequate calcium intake. Strontium can replace calcium in bones, weakening them and limiting development, according to Sarah Yang, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services' groundwater toxicologist.
"We're more worried about infants and children because their bones are actively growing," Yang told EHN. "Generally infants and children can absorb more strontium in their intestines, and adults can't."
High strontium in drinking water is linked to rickets in children, an extremely rare skeletal condition causing soft, sometimes deformed, bones.
Strontium, a soft metal that originates from minerals like celestine, makes its way into drinking water naturally. Aquifers with high strontium concentrations are often surrounded by carbonate rock containing limestone and dolomite.
In the USGS study, author MaryLynn Musgrove, a research physical scientist, found that 86 percent of people exposed to high strontium levels drink water supplied by carbonate rock aquifers. More than half of them are using Florida's underground reservoirs, where some freshwater has been blending with limestone and dolomite for 26,000 years.
Texas' carbonate aquifers also stood out.The Edwards-Trinity aquifer system, a sandstone and carbonate formation spanning from Oklahoma to western Texas, had the most frequent occurrence of high strontium concentrations in its corresponding wells.
Dolomite is abundant in the bedrock of eastern Wisconsin, where strontium levels are among the highest of U.S. drinking water supplies.
While the USGS study mainly looked at areas exceeding 4 mg/L of strontium in samples, some communities living atop these dolomite layers drink water with more than 25 mg/L, the one-day health advisory limit for children.
"We have a lot of communities that have values above 20, 30, 50 mg/L," John Luczaj, a professor of geosciences at University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, told EHN.
Removal of Strontium From Drinking Water
While its radioactive sibling, strontium-90, is regulated, natural strontium contamination is unregulated by the EPA.
The major dilemma, according to Victor Rivera-Diaz, a writer and researcher for Save the Water, is that it is still a "public health mystery." While some research has conclusively linked strontium to bone degradation, a lack of data has kept the EPA from regulating it under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
"It is a problem," Rivera-Diaz told EHN. "It definitely requires more attention, even more so in the areas that are prone to high contamination."
But this is easier said than done, Rivera-Diaz explained.
Strontium cannot be removed with conventional water treatment technology. Thus, communities would have to look to other systems, such as point-of-entry reverse osmosis.
"Some of these technologies can be quite costly, so that might be a barrier for lower-income communities," Rivera-Diaz said.
Reverse osmosis systems and water softeners are incredibly effective in removing strontium concentrations.
"If it was up to me, I would, in the short term, figure out a way to subsidize technologies that are proven to filter out strontium, especially in those communities where those levels are well above 4 mg/L," Rivera-Diaz said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Cameron Oglesby
Since 1960, about 21 percent of global agriculture production, including livestock, tree farming, and traditional crops such as corn and soybeans, has been negatively impacted by climate change, according to a new study.
In the research published Thursday in Nature Climate Change, agriculture production is defined not just as crop yields or the amount of food or livestock grown, but the overarching energy and input it takes to produce food. This includes manual labor, fertilizers, water, and land. Unsurprisingly, agriculture production worldwide has grown over the last 60 years as a result of improved technologies and greater efficiency, primarily in higher income countries.
But the new study provides the latest evidence that climate change — and the subsequent increase in droughts, flooding, and extreme heat — has held back agricultural gains and impeded global food security efforts.
"People don't yet realize that the climate has already changed," Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, a Cornell economist and lead author of the new study, told EHN. "That's not something that we often talk about, just about what the impacts will be 50 years from now."
Climate Change Wipes Out Improvements
Using models similar to those created by climatologists to predict future climate trends, Ortiz-Bobea and his team charted climate data between 1960 and 2020, and compared it to a model where human-caused climate change never occurred.
They compared the "total factor productivity" between models: how does actual agricultural productivity over time compare to what it could have been without climate change?
"Climate change has basically wiped out about seven years of improvements in agricultural productivity over the past 60 years," Ortiz-Bobea said in a statement.
In other words, if the world were to wave a magic wand and halt the planetary changes associated with greenhouse gas emissions and a warming climate, global agricultural production would have reached the level it is today back in 2013, said Ortiz-Bobea.
Ortiz-Bobea compared the situation to someone running with a strong wind at their front: As a runner attempts to make their way to the finish line, the wind is constantly pushing them back. They're making progress but it's slow compared to a windless day. In this scenario, climate change is the strong wind and the runner's progress is farm production growth.
He noted that if climate change gets worse, a growing possibility as countries fail to set commitments that meet Paris agreement targets, it's only a matter of time until agriculture production stalls. "[Climate change has] been happening for years, and as the magnitude keeps rising and rising it's going to get harder to ignore," he said
Ortiz-Bobea wasn't expecting such a significant difference in farm production between models with and without climate change. "I didn't even think that the result would be statistically significant," he said. "I was expecting something much smaller, something almost imperceptible. But no matter how we sliced the data or looked at different variations of the econometric model, it was pretty consistent that it's a substantial negative effect."
Developing Countries Suffer
The greatest climate impacts are seen in countries that are historically warmer such as those in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. As developing regions are often without the same technological advancement or management systems for agriculture, they face the greatest losses as unpredictable weather and warming events threaten crops and livestock. Ortiz-Bobea noted that this issue is as much an equity issue as it is an economic one.
The agriculture sector faces a unique problem in the way of climate change. Historically, the industry has relied on unsustainable practices that further greenhouse gas emissions. One example is in Brazil, where massive Amazon deforestation has taken place in an attempt to grow the country's economy around cattle and soybean farming. The transformation of forests, a crucial carbon sink, into crop lands also contributes to rises in atmospheric carbon levels.
In addition, increased global meat consumption and subsequent cattle production is a common source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas about 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
So what is the best way to produce more food without contributing to a cycle of climate change?
Ortiz-Bobea said that the solution is in a mix of mitigation and adaptation. "Despite all the new, very exciting technologies that we are coming up with like CRISPR, they will still take decades to have an impact," she said. CRISPR is an increasingly popular technology that allows geneticists to modify DNA sequences and gene functions. Often touted as the solution to harmful birth defects in human genomes, conversations have arisen around the use of gene editing to increase food production for a rapidly growing population.
Ortiz-Bobea also highlighted the potential for soil-based strategies. "There are ways to increase soil health that allow soils to improve their water holding capacity, for example," he said. "And so that improves the crop yields and allows farmers to weather the storm, no pun intended there, while at the same time it helps capture carbon from the atmosphere."
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Andrew Blok
Researchers found that one type of algae, which has greatly expanded its range within the Great Lakes and is one of the most abundant algae by weight there, could catch up to one trillion pieces of microplastic in the Great Lakes.
"It's just a massive amount of these microscopic particle pollutants that are now part of our environment," Julie Peller, a professor of chemistry at Valparaiso University whose recent research revealed the microplastics-algae dynamic, told EHN.
Peller and colleagues say the study may offer insight into how we can stop the microplastic pollution — any plastic debris less than five millimeters long — from getting into the lakes. However, in the meantime, algae are often used as shelter for freshwater species at the bottom of the food chain, so the findings suggest that these microplastic hiding spots could be contaminating Great Lakes fish — and the people that eat them.
The Hiding Spots for Great Lakes Plastic
There are a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes, one of the world's largest freshwater ecosystems and the drinking water source for 30 million people. While less well understood than ocean plastics, the tiny bits of plastic are pretty much ubiquitous throughout the five lakes. Research shows they're in tap water and beer brewed with water from the Great Lakes. Surface water samples show huge numbers of microplastics, but statistical models always predict more microplastics are in the lakes than are found by sampling.
Finding them in algae helps close some of that gap.
"I think that we found one of those reservoirs where some of the microplastics have been, for lack of a better word, hiding," said Peller, whose recently published study in Environmental Pollution documented the close interactions between algae and microplastics.
This study examined the most abundant group of algae in the Great Lakes: Cladophora. Cladophora, which looks a bit like green hair, readily tangles up with plastic microfibers, which are shed from synthetic clothing, carpets, and other cloth.
Nearly every penny-sized sample of Cladophora collected from the lakes contained at least one microfiber, Peller said. Even samples from apparently pristine locations, like near Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in the northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula, contained microplastics.
Peller's team also took clean, living Cladophora samples and added plastic microfibers to them. Plastic microfibers quickly adhered to the algae in a process called adsorption, in which two substances stick together because of a molecular attraction.
"The affinity between microplastics and Cladophora may offer insights for removing microplastic pollution," Peller and colleagues wrote in the study. In fact, adsorption already plays a major role in stopping microplastic pollution.
Attracted to Sludge
Synthetic fabrics shed microfibers when washed, so microfibers are often most abundant near populous areas where they enter the environment through treated wastewater.
Even without special plastic screening technology, removing 90 percent of plastics is not only possible, but probable, Heng Zhang, the assistant director of monitoring and research at Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, told EHN. Studies of wastewater treatment plants around the world put the removal rate as high as 98 percent.
A main goal of wastewater treatment is removing particles of organic waste by screening and settling out waste into a sludge. Because microplastics tend to attach to these particles, like they do to algae, a lot of it is captured by processes designed before microplastic pollution started gaining attention.
"I have to admit, it wasn't designed. It just happened by chance or by nature or the characteristics of the stuff," Zhang said.
Removal rates of 90 percent or higher still leave a lot of microplastics in the Great Lakes. Some researchers estimate 10,000 metric tons (or about 11,000 tons) of plastic pollution enters the Great Lakes each year.
But regulation will likely dictate when new microplastic removal technology is developed.
"I don't see any EPA guidelines that says we need to start looking at the technology to remove that," Zhang said. "It looks like microplastics is down to the very end of the priority list."
Until then, wastewater treatment plants are likely to focus on other areas, Zhang said.
Pollutants like metals, nutrients and emerging contaminants like improperly disposed pharmaceuticals take precedence now.
If or when microplastics become a focus of wastewater treatment it makes sense to "start with what has worked," Zhang wrote in a follow-up email. There would still be questions to answer about efficacy, cost and consequences — such as safe disposal after microplastic is collected.
Plastics at the Base of the Food Web
Cladophora is a genus of freshwater algae that has increased in the Great Lakes with the arrival of invasive mussels. Filter-feeding zebra and quagga mussels have spread throughout the Great Lakes basin, sucking light-blocking algae and plankton out of the water. As the water cleared and sunlight could reach greater depths, Cladophora expanded its range to deeper waters.
Cladophora is different from the toxic blue-green algae that has caused problems for some Great Lakes water supplies. But there's so much of it now it's become a nuisance, Meredith Nevers, a research ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey and a co-author of the new study, told EHN.
The sheer amount of long, stringy Cladophora in the lakes — up to 129,000 tons, according to one estimate — means it's likely playing a significant role in microplastic's fate in the Great Lakes.
"If there are microfibers and microplastics in the lake, there's no question they're going to get tangled up in filaments of algae," Nevers said.
Great Lakes fish don't eat Cladophora, but it provides shelter for zooplankton and other invertebrates, which are a major food source for some prey fish. The mingling of microplastics with natural fish food could be one entry point for microplastics into the food chain. Further, by catching microplastics, algae may be keeping them suspended in the water for longer where they're more likely to be eaten.
"It wouldn't surprise me to have microplastics enter food webs through the invertebrates that live in and graze on Cladophora," Eric Hellquist wrote in an email to EHN. Hellquist is a professor of biological sciences at State University of New York Oswego.
Once microplastics enter a food chain, they can make their way up to fish species that humans eat, research shows.
Hellquist and his students surveyed prey fish — such as alewife, sculpin, and invasive round gobies — in Lake Ontario and found that 97 percent of 330 fish had microfibers in their digestive tracts. The majority of microplastics found were microfibers, he said.
Higher up the food chain, microplastics were present in most animals, too. In 40 chinook salmon, Hellquist found that 92 percent had microplastics in their digestive tract. Of 33 coho salmon, 82 percent had ingested microplastics. Hellquist's students found, on average, 3.5 to 4 pieces of plastic in each salmon.
Research is beginning to show harmful effects on fish from microplastics. Microplastics are often found in their gills and digestive systems, but also within muscle tissue. When ingested they've been found to have harmful effects on fish digestion, metabolism, growth and brain function. They've also been associated with higher levels of toxic substances in fish.
Research suggests that fish consumption could be one way that microplastics get into people.
'It's Just So Huge'
The study of microplastics in the Great Lakes is still a relatively young field and a lot of questions need to be answered.
One thing is clear: the amount of microplastics in the Great Lakes is huge.
"It's hard to think about because it's so large," Peller said.
However, Peller thinks the stickiness of algae might inspire better removal technology.
"I think that a lot of times when we look for solutions to problems that we as humans have created, we often find a lot of insight into nature's natural mechanism for cleansing itself," she said.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
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By Gwen Ranniger
Fertility issues are on the rise, and new literature points to ways that your environment may be part of the problem. We've rounded up some changes you can make in your life to promote a healthy reproductive system.
Infertility and Environmental Health: The Facts
- Sperm count is declining steeply, significantly, and continuously in Western countries, with no signs of tapering off. Erectile dysfunction is on the rise, and women are facing increasing rates of miscarriage and difficulty conceiving.
- Why? A huge factor is our environmental health. Hormones (particularly testosterone and estrogen) are what make reproductive function possible, and our hormones are increasingly being negatively affected by harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonplace in the modern world—in our homes, foods, and lifestyles.
What You Can Do About It
It should be noted that infertility can be caused by any number of factors, including medical conditions that cannot be solved with a simple change at home.
If you or a loved one are struggling with infertility, our hearts and sympathies are with you. Your pain is validated and we hope you receive answers to your struggles.
Read on to discover our tips to restore or improve reproductive health by removing harmful habits and chemicals from your environment.
Edit Your Health
- If you smoke, quit! Smoking is toxic, period. If someone in your household smokes, urge them to quit or institute a no-smoking ban in the house. It is just as important to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Make sure your caloric intake is right for your body and strive for moderate exercise.
- Eat cleanly! Focus on whole foods and less processed meals and snacks. Studies have found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to increased fertility.
- Minimize negative/constant stress—or find ways to manage it. Hobbies such as meditation or yoga that encourage practiced breathing are great options to reduce the physical toll of stress.
Edit Your Home
We spend a lot of time in our homes—and care that what we bring into them will not harm us. You may not be aware that many commonly found household items are sources of harmful, endocrine-disrupting compounds. Read on to find steps you can take—and replacements you should make—in your home.
In the Kitchen
- Buy organic, fresh, unprocessed foods whenever possible. Read our grocery shopping guide for more tips about food.
- Switch to glass, ceramics, or stainless steel for food storage: plastics often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that affect fertility. Learn more about the dangers of plastic here.
- Ban plastic from the microwave. If you have a plastic splatter cover, use paper towel, parchment paper, or an upside-down plate instead.
- Upgrade your cookware: non-stick may make life easier, but it is made with unsafe chemical compounds that seep into your food. Cast-iron and stainless steel are great alternatives.
- Filter tap water. Glass filter pitchers are an inexpensive solution; if you want to invest you may opt for an under-the-sink filter.
- Check your cleaning products—many mainstream products are full of unsafe chemicals. Check out our guide to safe cleaning products for more info.
In the Bathroom
- Check the labels on your bathroom products: fragrance-free, paraben-free, phthalate-free and organic labels are all great signs. You can also scan the ingredients lists for red-flag chemicals such as: triclosan, parabens, and dibutyl phthalate. Use the EWG Skin Deep database to vet your personal products.
- Ditch the vinyl shower curtain—that new shower curtain smell is chemical-off gassing. Choose a cotton or linen based curtain instead.
- Banish air fresheners—use natural fresheners (an open window, baking soda, essential oils) instead.
- Remove wall-to-wall carpet. If you've been considering wood or tile, here's your sign: many synthetic carpets can emit harmful chemicals for years. If you want a rug, choose wool or plant materials such as jute or sisal.
- Prevent dust build-up. Dust can absorb chemicals in the air and keep them lingering in your home. Vacuum rugs and wipe furniture, trim, windowsills, fans, TVs, etc. Make sure to have a window open while you're cleaning!
- Leave shoes at the door! When you wear your shoes throughout the house, you're tracking in all kinds of chemicals. If you like wearing shoes inside, consider a dedicated pair of "indoor shoes" or slippers.
- Clean out your closet—use cedar chips or lavender sachets instead of mothballs, and use "green" dry-cleaning services over traditional methods. If that isn't possible, let the clothes air out outside or in your garage for a day before putting them back in your closet.
- Say no to plastic bags!
- We asked 22 endocrinologists what products they use - and steer clear of—in their homes. Check out their responses here.
- For more information and action steps, be sure to check out Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race by EHS adjunct scientist Shanna Swan, PhD: available for purchase here.
- Sign up for our Above the Fold Newsletter to stay up to date about impacts on the environment and your health.
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.
By Casey Crownhart
Disinfectant use has exploded during the coronavirus pandemic as people try to keep their hands and surfaces clean. But one family of cleaning chemicals is receiving scrutiny for potential health concerns.
Quats, or quaternary ammonium compounds, are charged molecules that can kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Quats are effective disinfectants, but some researchers are raising alarm given recent research on the compounds' possible human health and environmental effects, including fertility issues, endocrine disruption, occupational asthma, marine toxicity, and potential to spur antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
And, while industry defends quats as safe, some states are taking notice and looking into regulations.
The pandemic has increased demand for products like Lysol wipes that use quats as active ingredients: sales of Lysol wipes were up nearly 50 percent in spring of 2020 compared to 2019. Other cleaning products are also in high demand — aerosol disinfectant sales as a whole have doubled in 2020 in the U.S., a large fraction of which also contain quats.
All those additional sales mean quats are becoming more present in the environment. "We're in an era now where the concentration [of quats] is certainly higher than ever before," William Arnold, an environmental engineer at the University of Minnesota, told EHN. He published a paper in June that revealed an increased load of quats may be ending up in wastewater plants, with some worrisome implications. Quats can end up in wastewater plants after they're flushed down the drain — at the levels of use during the pandemic, some plants can't keep up, so quats have the potential to pollute waterways. There, they might disrupt marine food chains, as quats have been found to be toxic to small invertebrates like plankton in lakes.
The ingredients also may be spurring antibiotic-resistant germs, Arnold said.
Bacteria are constantly working to shore up their defenses against the antiseptics we use. "We've had an 80- or 90-year head start, but we really need to keep innovating" to stay ahead of microbial evolution, Kevin Minbiole, a Villanova University chemist who studies how quats affect bacteria and viruses, told EHN.
Quats work like spears, penetrating the shell on the outside of a bacteria or virus. But some bacteria are getting better at recognizing quats and getting rid of them, or becoming resistant, said Minbiole. He and his collaborator, Emory University chemist William Wuest, are experimenting with new antimicrobial ingredients and recently patented their own quats that can mount multiple attacks on a single microbe. These quats are likely even more effective antiseptics than current quats on the market, but the new chemicals haven't yet been tested for safety, so it's not clear how their health or environmental impacts might differ, or not, from current quats, according to Wuest.
But the germs may be one step ahead. As they encounter quats and other antiseptics, bacteria can develop broad, rather than specific, resistance. These new bacterial shields, which evolved to block attacks by antiseptics, might also protect them against other threats, including the antibiotic medications doctors prescribe to help fight serious infections.
It's called cross resistance: when changes bacteria make to get around one threat make them better suited to survive other threats, too. "Those changes make bacteria capable of surviving different compounds, different chemicals that it hasn't seen before," Beatriz Pereira, a recent graduate student in microbiology from University of California, Davis, told EHN.
In lab experiments, Pereira has seen bacteria develop resistance to certain quats, even when she only exposes them to low concentrations of the chemicals. The bacteria shore up their defenses, strengthening their outer membrane — a good way to develop cross resistance to other chemicals as well. It's not clear whether bacteria are yet developing resistance in the wild in response to current levels of quat pollution, or even how much quat pollution currently exists. But to Pereira, these lab experiments alongside a growing body of evidence suggest that the best way to respond to the problem of antibiotic resistance may be not to develop new quats, which might cause the same problem of antibiotic resistance eventually, but to reconsider whether we should be using them at all, at least in some products.
Birth Defects and Infertility
Theresa Hrubec, a biologist at Virginia Tech and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, has also been publishing work on the potential risks of quats — work that started by accident. While she was using mice to study potential side effects of medications, she noticed that some mice in her control group, the mice that weren't exposed to any medication, were developing birth defects. After ruling out the possibility that she had switched the groups, she found a potential explanation: the facility had recently started using quats to disinfect her lab. The floors were mopped daily, the walls wiped down weekly, and anytime a box of mice was opened, it was wiped down with disinfectant. The mice were all being unintentionally dosed with quats, Hrubec told EHN. And she wasn't the only researcher who had seen problems with mice and quat disinfectants: Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University, had seen similar problems with her mice.
Hrubec and Hunt have since published several studies that link quats to health problems in mice, from birth defects to decreases in fertility. For each of the studies, mice were fed a mixture of two common quat disinfectants at high doses for several weeks before being examined for either fetal birth defects or signs of decreased fertility.
Mice that were exposed to quats were more likely to develop neural tube defects, an early-stage birth defect. And doses of quats decreased the number and size of litters born as well.
How exactly quats might cause birth defects is still unknown, according to Hrubec. She has a few theories. Endocrine disruption might be to blame — Gino Cortopassi, who collaborated with Hrubec, found that one quat, although not the same chemical Hrubec used in her research, can bind to hormone receptors. The same lab also found that quats appear to affect how mitochondria function, which can cause a litany of problems in cells.
Inflammation might be another possible explanation. Quats are suspected to cause occupational asthma — exposure to a toxic or irritating chemical that results in lung inflammation. Japanese researchers found in 2010 that mice exposed to quats at high concentrations by inhalation saw cell death and increased levels of inflammation. However, human studies observing quat exposure and occupational asthma have had mixed results, with some researchers arguing that quat exposure hasn't been definitively linked with lung problems.
Most of the research by Hrubec and her collaborators is done in mice, so quats may not have the same effects on humans. Figuring out how quats might be impacting humans is a much more complicated job. In a pre-print, published last year but not yet reviewed by outside experts for accuracy, Hrubec and her collaborators performed a monitoring study of a small group, 43 people. They detected quats in 80 percent of the study participants, and quat levels in the blood were associated with higher levels of inflammation and decreased mitochondrial function. The results are still preliminary, but it is among the first research to attempt monitoring quat levels in humans.
Not everyone agrees about how the research is being done. In a letter to the editor in response to one of Hrubec's early studies, Keith Hostetler, an industry representative, raised concerns about the experiment's design. One critique was the dose level — according to Hostetler, the level of disinfectant fed to the mice would be the equivalent of a 155-pound adult drinking about 1.5 quarts of disinfecting solution daily.
But toxicology studies are pretty typically performed with high doses at first, before being extrapolated down to more realistic doses, according to Heather Patisaul, a biologist at North Carolina State University who studies toxicological effects of hormone-disrupting compounds. She was not involved in Hrubec's studies.
"Complaining that the dose is too high and the sample size is too low is a common industry response," Patisaul told EHN via email. In this case, she said the dosage was particularly high for some groups. However, Patisaul also notes that Hrubec saw birth defects in fetuses when the father was fed less than 1/15 the dose Hostetler mentioned, which she said is more compelling evidence that quats might cause harm.
Still, "neither [dose] is anywhere near a human-relevant range," Patisaul said, so the results do not definitively show that quats could harm human health with normal levels of use.
The doses were high in order to determine whether quats warrant more research, said Hrubec, adding that many mice that were not fed quats, but were merely present in rooms where quats were used, were also found to develop birth defects. To her, this suggests that the disinfectants present in the lab from regular disinfecting were still enough to trigger health problems.
States Take Notice
Hrubec has been a constant figure at regulatory meetings on quats. She presented her research during a March 2020 meeting with California's Biomonitoring Program. During the meeting, other researchers also presented data on quat's potential for causing occupational asthma and endocrine disruption.
After considering data from researchers and industry, the advisory panel for Biomonitoring California voted unanimously to add quats to the list of chemicals that could be considered for biomonitoring studies, and they plan to discuss quats as potential high-priority chemicals in March 2021, according to Shoba Iyer, a toxicologist for the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment who works with the biomonitoring program.
The program's board does not have the authority to ban quats — the purpose of adding quats to the monitoring list and completing biomonitoring studies is to learn more about chemical exposures and inform public health policies and regulations, Iyer told EHN.
Officials from one agency in Massachusetts also have their eye on quats — and they say the pandemic and the resulting increase in disinfectant use has caused them to examine the chemicals more closely. "That's why we finally decided to take up [quats], because people are using it constantly to try to keep themselves and their workers and customers safe," Liz Harriman, Deputy Director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) in Massachusetts, told EHN.
Massachusetts state law requires companies that manufacture certain chemicals, or use them to make products, to report use levels of the chemicals and submit plans for safe use. The Scientific Advisory Board for TURI makes recommendations to state agencies on which chemicals to examine, and they are focusing on two classes of quats, both of which are used in surface cleaners, according to Heather Tenney, who heads the board.
In January, the advisory board discussed several categories of research on quats, including birth defects and respiratory conditions like asthma, as well as environmental effects of quats like the potential for microbial resistance. The board did not reach a vote, and will reconvene in March to continue discussing potential action on quats.
Hostetler, the industry representative who has published letters challenging Hrubec's research, also presented at both the March Biomonitoring California presentation and the TURI meeting in January. At the TURI board meeting, he emphasized that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has independently concluded that quats do not have effects on developmental or reproductive health, based on tests that follow agency guidelines.
Manufacturers maintain that their disinfecting products available for purchase have been tested extensively. "They've done a lot of research on their formulations. What they put on the market, they know to be safe and efficacious," James Kim, a Vice President of the American Cleaning Institute, a trade organization that represents manufacturers, told EHN.
Alternatives Are Available
Despite increased attention from states, quats will likely remain available on the market in surface disinfectants for the foreseeable future. But for consumers looking to avoid quats in their cleaning supplies, alternatives are available.
"Given the huge concern for reproductive toxicity and birth defects in humans, it really makes sense to take a precautionary approach," Samara Geller, a research analyst for Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that pushes for regulation of chemicals in consumer products, told EHN.
While a large portion of disinfectants on the market include either quats or bleach as their main ingredient, there are other options available. Geller said EWG recommends products that contain citric acid, lactic acid, or hydrogen peroxide as their main ingredients. EWG also publishes a guide to cleaning products that aggregates safety data where consumers can check for options.
Consumers can reference the EPA's list of disinfectants that are expected to be effective against coronavirus, which lists products by active ingredient.
Liz Harriman, the Massachusetts TURI official, said she also urges the public to consider alternative products to those that contain quats. "It's not so much that we're dead set against quats," said Harriman, "But if there are safer alternatives you can use to accomplish the same thing, why wouldn't you use those?"
Reposted with permission from Environmental Health News.