Mayor Ed Gainey’s transition team released 120 pages of recommendations Thursday, one of which was about trees. It said the city needed to follow its own plan to stop developers from removing trees.
18 species whose populations may be in trouble will get a review for threatened or endangered status from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
Microplastics can pick up pollution in their travels and pose an even greater threat to human health, according to a new study.
In the ocean, for example, toxic compounds can hitch a ride on plastic and make the material 10 times more toxic than it would normally be, according to the research published earlier this year in Chemosphere.
Although the dangers of both microplastics and harmful compounds have been studied individually, few researchers have look at their combined effect. This study is also unique in that the researchers tested these polluted plastic particles on human cells—most previous research has focused on the impacts on marine life.
Microplastics are tiny plastic particles formed when larger pieces of plastic degrade over time—and they are ubiquitous, found everywhere from Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench. They can act as magnets for environmental pollution, transforming them into potentially toxic particles, Andrey Rubin, a Ph.D. Student at Tel Aviv University and first author of the study, told EHN.
The microplastics can then funnel these compounds into the bodies of marine organisms, which studies have shown can lead to neurotoxicity, an altered immune response, a reduced growth rate, and death. From there, the tainted microplastics can continue to make their way up the food chain, inadvertently exposing humans.
Rubin and co-author Ines Zuker, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tel Aviv University, tested what would happen when human cells found along the intestinal tract were exposed to a pollution-plastic mixture containing one type of microplastic known as microbeads and triclosan, an antimicrobial ingredient that was banned in the U.S. in 2016, primarily due to health concerns.
Triclosan, formerly found in mouthwash and hand sanitizer, is an endocrine disruptor that has also been linked to an increase in allergies in children. Even so, “it still exists in some products,” explained Rubin. “A year ago, we saw triclosan in a toothpaste, which is sold here in Israel.”
Rubin and Zucker found that, alone, the microbeads weren’t toxic to human cells. Neither was triclosan.
When combined, however, the two were “very toxic toward the cells,” said Rubin—the effect was an order of magnitude greater than the sum of its parts.
Outside the lab, the cells the researchers used in their investigation are the same ones that act as a barrier between the inside and outside of the body. The plastic mixture “can get into our bloodstream,” explained Rubin, where the accumulated compounds will likely be released.
Next, they hope to investigate how the mixture’s toxicity changes when different plastics or pollutants are used.
Controlled environments in a laboratory make it difficult to say how applicable these findings are in the real world, Tan Amelia, a Ph.D. student at University of Malaysia, Terengganu who was not involved with the study, told EHN. Conditions in the lab don’t perfectly represent environment, and findings from microplastics research is often hard to replicate due to a lack of standardized methods.
But Amelia said the study should spur more awareness of a global problem.
“Papers like those of Rubin and co-workers’ could help spread awareness regarding the severity of microplastics, which indirectly encourages the reduction of microplastics manufacturing and consumption,” she said.
The environmental beat can be a real downer and we often focus on the problems—but there are signs of progress in our fight against climate change and pollution.
From renewable projects to plastic treaties, here are some dashes of hope for our planet.
More than a decade ago the North American environmental movement threw much of its limited clout against a single project. The Keystone XL pipeline would expedite delivery of oil from Canada’s tarsands to U.S. refineries along the Gulf Coast and make Canada a petro-state.
Enter an army of writers, hellraisers, tribes, farmers, and lawyers who objected to the path, if not the very idea, of Keystone XL. President Biden finally stuck a fork in the project by revoking a crucial permit on his first day in office
Other oil and gas pipeline projects saw similar citizen uprisings. Expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) from North Dakota’s shale fields to southern Illinois prompted massive protests and allegations of violence perpetrated by police and DAPL-hired security guards. Plans for a pipeline from Alberta to Canada’s east coast were abandoned. Fuel pipeline proposals fell in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and elsewhere.
The nonprofit Investigate West recently looked at the billion-dollar potential for wind and solar jobs on tribal lands throughout the Western U.S.
In March, a U.S. government lease sale for offshore wind rights shattered records and expectations, drawing $4.37 billion in winning bids. Two major oil companies, European-based Total and Shell, were among the top bidders. U.S.-based oil giants were much less enthusiastic.
Last year Australia added to a global trend by declaring two massive new marine parks in the Indian Ocean. Surrounding the Cocos and Christmas Islands, the parks curtail commercial activities from other nations. Previous parks and reserves have been set by multiple nations in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans as well as the Southern Ocean encircling Antarctica.
The Empire State Building now runs completely on windpower (Not exactly. The realty trust that owns the building still buys its juice from the conventional grid, but it then buys the same amount from Green Mountain Energy’s clean energy program.)
Of course, the decline of Big Coal in the U.S. is at best a mixed bag without some economic hope in coal country. Last week in West Virginia, developers unveiled plans for the largest solar farm in the state in a sprawling former coalfield.
It’s an issue where despair prevails, but even here we can see a glimmer. In March, a United Nations conference mandated the creation of a global treaty on plastics pollution.
There are more issues—both problems and solutions—identified by scientists, activists, and others and brought to light by journalists like my colleagues here at EHN. Political challenges like environmental justice dot the global landscape, while environmental health phenomena break out of the lab and into our lives.
Discoveries on the impacts of endocrine disruptors, “forever” chemicals like PFAS, and herbicides once thought benign like glyphosate may not be classic “good news” stories, but there’s plenty of good in these problems being brought to light.
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What a time of change and growth!
We are pleased to share Environmental Health Sciences' 2021 Annual Report, highlighting the many activities we undertook last year that set EHS up for a strong 2022.
Download our annual report here:
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash
2021 was a year of excitement and challenge for our small nonprofit.
And we watched readers – like you! – get engaged in ways that continually surprised us.
Photo by Jamie Coupaud on Unsplash
In just the first three months this year EHS staff has been a hive of activity:
Take a look at the work EHS did last year and be proud that you, as a reader, are moving it forward.
We certainly are grateful to you!
PS: Just this week we published a look at impacts one year after "Fractured," our groundbreaking investigation into spillover pollution from fracking fields in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Check it out!
Banner photo art by David Ryder for EHN.org
Pine trees are tracking airborne chemicals, according to new research.
Every pine needle tested in a North Carolina State University study contained PFAS chemicals—with researchers finding more than 70 different types of the compounds.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, called PFAS, are toxic chemicals used in many consumer and industrial products. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to health problems such as certain types of cancer, reproductive issues, and birth defects. Because PFAS bioaccumulate—or build up—in the environment, they can be found almost anywhere, even in the waxy coating that covers pine needles.
Researchers found that testing pine needles for PFAS can provide a convenient and low-cost way to track the prevalence of PFAS in the air. The researchers tested pine needles from 20 sites around North Carolina, as well as pine needles collected from the area in the past five decades, to determine the abundance of airborne PFAS as well as the changes in types of PFAS used over time. The researchers did not find any pine needles that were free of the chemicals, said Kaylie Kirkwood, a PhD student at North Carolina State University and the lead author on the study.
“I was really surprised by the magnitude of some of the PFAS that we found,” Scott Belcher, a professor of biological sciences at North Carolina State University and an author on the study, told EHN.
The research emphasizes the prevalence of all types of PFAS—including newer PFAS such as GenX—in the air we breathe, especially near areas such as airports, chemical plants, or military facilities. Their method of testing pine needles also provides a potential new, low-cost, and convenient way to monitor PFAS movement through the air, which is valuable information for those concerned about their PFAS exposure.
Particularly surprising, said Belcher, was the level of PFAS found in trees near the Raleigh International Airport and the North Carolina National Guard facility. While the researchers had expected those sites to be highly contaminated, the actual readings were much higher than expected. The researchers suspect this is due to hydraulic fluid used in aircrafts and firefighting foam used in training, respectively, and the results point to high occupational hazards for people working in and around those facilities.
The levels of PFAS in the historical pine needles correlated well with documented changes in PFAS use in the past 50 years. For example, the researchers noticed a sharp increase in PFAS in the late 1960s, around the same time when manufacturers began to use PFAS in firefighting foam. Needles collected from the 90s and beyond showed a higher percentage of newer PFAS, such as the chemical GenX.
The abundance of PFAS in pine needles also raises alarms about how PFAS are moved around in the environment, especially because the chemicals are so persistent and do not break down. In North Carolina, for example, pine needles are used frequently in landscaping. Every time that happens, said Belcher, PFAS are moved around even further and may be at risk of leaching into soil and groundwater. The research also raises concerns about how PFAS might be re-released into the air when pine needles are burned.
Passive monitoring by using pine needles really expands the amount of data that scientists can collect, said Erin Baker, a professor of chemistry at North Carolina State University and an author on the study. The trees collect data constantly, eliminating the need for scientists to rush out into the field and monitor the air during specific contamination events. Testing pine needles, said Baker, also makes it easier to complete site-specific monitoring. “It gives us a capability to check some of these places that we're worried about without having to go on site and grab specific samples; we can just go to a tree that's nearby,” she told EHN.
In the future, Kirkwood imagines a citizen science effort to use PFAS to get a much more comprehensive picture of airborne PFAS—anyone, after all, could collect pine, spruce, or fir needles from a tree outside their home, and could have a good picture of the levels and types of PFAS they are exposed to daily. “Having this ability to monitor cheaply really makes some of these things possible,” said Belcher. “So this will have a bigger reach.”
Kirkwood also said that the importance of herbaria (plant collections often housed in museums or universities) should not be overlooked. Some herbaria, she said, are shut down to save costs. However, the plants held in those herbaria hold important data that can be used to track pollution over time, she told EHN.
See the full study here.
Banner photo: Pine trees in North Carolina. (Credit: Travis/flickr)
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming by Liz Carlisle. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.
Nikiko Masumoto is optimistic. The third generation to farm her family’s certified organic orchard in California’s Central Valley, the 36-year-old queer feminist performance artist–peach grower is well aware that hers isn’t the face that people typically imagine when they conjure up an image of a farmer.
But she is working to change that, to build an agrarian culture that fully embraces diversity both on the land and in the community. Part of that work involves situating herself in her own family legacy on the land.
“Whenever I begin conversations about myself and my relationship to the land, it’s always through my grandparents and great-grandparents who touched this same soil,” Masumoto says. “There is a gift of that, which is thinking of my life in a lineage that is much more important than my own individual life.”
This sense of connecting across generations is central to regenerative agriculture, Masumoto believes. “So many of the methods that develop soil take time—the horizon is long. When you’re wanting to leave a farm to several generations in the future you have a vested interest in taking up those practices.”
But digging into her family’s history is also a painful and complicated process. Discriminated against as immigrants, Masumoto’s great-grandparents never owned the land they worked. What little savings they had built up was lost during Japanese American internment, when some 120,000 people—most of them US citizens—were incarcerated for years simply for the crime of their Japanese descent. So Masumoto’s grandparents had to start from scratch, eking out a living on marginal land as they gradually built up the soil.
Nikiko Masumoto giving a TED Talk in 2015. (Credit: TEDx Manhattan/flickr)
“We are the ones that the world needs in this climate crisis,” Masumoto says, referring not just to Japanese Americans but to other communities of color who have experienced oppression. “Because we have those stories, we have that sense of fighting against the impossible.”
As I continued my research, I heard Masumoto’s sentiments echoed dozens of times. From Hawai‘i to New York, Montana to Puerto Rico, young farmers and scientists of color were reviving ancestral regenerative farming traditions in a self-conscious effort to respond to climate change and racial injustice in tandem. These farmers and scientists understood regenerative agriculture not as a menu of discrete, isolated practices from which one could pick and choose and then tally up into a sustainability score. Rather, they saw regenerative agriculture as their ancestors had—as a way of life.
“For me agroforestry is not just about figuring out how to minimize your impact and still grow food within that system,” says Olivia Watkins, who is farming mushrooms in the understory of forested land in North Carolina that has been in her family for more than 130 years.
“There are so many pieces involved in growing food that don’t just have to do with the crop itself. The fungi in the soil. The wildlife in the area. How does water fall on the land? All those things are intertwined, so for me, the question is always, how can I be mindful of all those things?”
Watkins is equally mindful that she’s conserving not only forest but also Black-owned land, which her family resolutely held on to over the course of a century when 98% of Black landowners were dispossessed.
“With the history of oppression around land, the fact that we are stewarding the land and taking care of it is revolutionary,” Watkins says.
On Watkins’s and Masumoto’s farms, what’s being regenerated is not just soil but a complex web of relationships. As both women described to me, this form of regenerative agriculture can only be fully realized when the entire web is repaired so that the interconnected parts can function as a whole. This means attending to a component of the farm often left out of scientific discussions: people.
“I get pissed sometimes at ecologists,” says University of California, Irvine researcher Aidee Guzman, “because they forget that people are involved in stewarding these systems.” Guzman is herself an ecologist—she studies soil microbial activity and pollination on farms—but she’s also the child of farmworkers who left their small farm in Mexico to immigrate to the US. When she looks at California’s Central Valley, she sees thousands of people like her parents—people who have both the knowledge and the desire to steward regenerative farms, if only they had the opportunity.
“We have to stop and think about the fact that farmworkers here in the US, people who were brought over from Africa and enslaved, they left their farms, probably extremely biodiverse farms,” Guzman says.
Masumoto, who grew up just an hour away from Guzman, agrees. “Structured inequality in farmworker lives infringes on people’s right to think about the future,” Masumoto laments. “The very people who have the skills right now [to implement regenerative agriculture] are the very people who we have marginalized the most in this country.”
In short, truly regenerating the web of relationships that support both our food system and our planet is going to take more than compost. We’re going to have to question the very concept of agriculture, and the bundle of assumptions that travel with the English word farm.
What is the objective of this activity? To convert plants into money? Or to foster the health of all beings?
Liz Carlisle is an assistant professor in the Environmental Studies Program at UC Santa Barbara, where she teaches courses on food and farming, and the author of Healing Grounds: Climate, Justice, and the Deep Roots of Regenerative Farming, published by Island Press.
Banner photo: An urban farm in Ghana. (Credit: IWMI Flickr Photos)