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Toxic Chemicals Churned Up By Natural Disasters a Long-Term Threat to Human Health

Clearing brush, brought by flooding, from beneath a home in Franklin, LA. Image: Bryan Thomas/New York Times

Climate change often compounds natural disasters such as fueling wildfires and increasing the risk for catastrophic flooding. While this results in billions of dollars of damage new evidence has revealed that these disasters are also stirring up toxic chemicals and making Americans sick. As the New York Times reported, “By knocking chemicals loose from soil, homes, industrial-waste sites or other sources, and spreading them into the air, water and ground, disasters like these — often intensified by climate change — appear to be exposing people to an array of physical ailments including respiratory disease and cancer.”

Naresh Kumar, a professor of environmental health at the University of Miami, explained that we come into contact with decades of contamination in our soil when natural disasters churn the ground. 

How Do Toxins Get in the Soil?: The University of Arizona explained that contaminants in soil are often present in farming communities or regions with considerable industrial activity but can be present anywhere. However, the leading causes of chemicals in soil include:

  • Industrial activity
  • Improper disposal of household waste
  • Rising use of chemicals in agriculture
  • Deforestation
  • Unintended leaks or spills

Additionally, another prevalent toxin during major flooding is raw sewage which can spread disease very quickly when flooding persists for many days.

Once the Chemicals Are Released: The World Health Organization issued a report last year warning of the human health impacts of chemical releases resulting from natural disasters. The report explained that once chemicals are released they can react with water or other substances to cause increased damage. For instance, during hurricanes when flammable hydrocarbons are released into the floodwaters, ignition can result in pool fires. These are buoyant flames above a horizontal pool of vaporizing hydrocarbon fuel and can carry a fire to new sources of flammable materials or into residential areas.

Regs Haven’t Caught Up: Gina McCarthy, who was the EPA administrator during the Obama administration and now directs the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment at Harvard explained that the toxic substances being dislodged during natural disasters are “much more long-lasting and ubiquitous than I think people realize. And we clearly haven’t caught up in terms of our laws and regulations, and the process of disaster response.”

Why This Matters: Climate change is a public health issue and we’re just starting to understand the implications. Researchers are still working to determine the specific ways that disasters like wildfires and hurricanes impact our health but thinking more broadly about the implications will mean determining the strain that climate change is putting on our healthcare system as it causes more people to develop chronic illnesses. Often the arguments that we hear for not taking action against climate change is that it’s too costly and will kill jobs, but what about the fact that it’s killing people both as natural disasters strike and in the aftermath when communities grapple with exposure to toxins?

Richard Branson Cuts Ties With Sea World

Last week Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced in a blog post that Virgin Holidays will end the sales and promotion of tourism attractions that involve captive cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins. Branson stated that “We felt strongly this was the right thing to do and we knew most of our customers supported it, too. Many no longer consider whale and dolphin shows and ‘swim withs’ to be appropriate, and most would rather enjoy these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.” As such, Virgin Holidays will end its relationship with theme parks such as Sea World. 

A Natural Next Step: In 2014 Virgin announced the Virgin Pledge which was a commitment that Virgin businesses will only continue to work with suppliers that don’t take whales and dolphins from the wild. Then in In 2017, Virgin Holidays took the next step and announced that it would not add any new attractions featuring captive whales and dolphins to its portfolio and would encourage its guests to support alternatives to captive experiences.

The Plan: As CNN explained, “the move by Virgin Holidays is part of a five-year campaign that works with activists, scientists, tourism operators, and organizations to raise standards in animal welfare in the tourism industry. Instead of seeking an immediate shutdown of existing theme parks, the plan is to support ethical sanctuaries and thereby encourage other parks to change their practices.”

Sea World Responds: Although SeaWorld put out a press statement saying that it was “disappointing to see Virgin Holidays succumb to pressure from animal activists who mislead and manipulate marine mammal science to advance their agendas,” groups like the Humane Society have made it clear that they believe whales and dolphins are “best seen in their natural coastal and ocean environments instead of being held captive simply to entertain people.”

Why This Matters: Six years after the documentary Blackfish sparked outrage around the world at the condition that captive whales and dolphins have to endure, tourists and travelers are seeking more humane experiences when interacting with animals at zoos and theme parks. Animals welfare group PETA has applauded Virgin’s decision and has been encouraging other tourism companies to do the same, recently urging Florida AAA to also stop doing business with SeaWorld. Some aquariums like the National Aquarium have pledged to relocate their dolphins into a wildlife sanctuary, though they’ve had trouble finding an adequate location for the sanctuary due to climate change and pollution.

We Need Trees to Stay Cool But We Keep Losing Them

We wrote last week that trees and forests have an important role to play in fighting climate change and their importance was only underscored by the recent heatwave that much of the east coast experienced. Tree cover can cool cities by as much as 10°F but in the United States, we’ve been losing a significant number of trees over recent decades. CNN reported that “tree cover in US cities is shrinking. A study published last year by the US Forest Service found that we lost 36 million trees annually from urban and rural communities over a five-year period. That’s a 1% drop from 2009 to 2014.”

Business As Usual:  David Nowak, a senior US Forest Service scientist and co-author of the study explained that if we continue to lose trees, “cities will become warmer, more polluted and generally more unhealthy for inhabitants.” Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, insects, and disease are all leading to the decline of trees and while human activity contributes to these forces, humans must also be cognizant that our development isn’t needlessly clearing trees and killing saplings.
Doing Our Part: It’s important that we push our communities to plant more trees while also protecting the ones growing on our properties and in our neighborhoods. Don’t remove old trees if it’s not necessary, make sure you properly prune dead branches and also be on the lookout for disease and decay. Additionally, it’s important to remember that when developing your property to be mindful of tree roots which are often overlooked and get damaged.
Why This Matters:  As Karl Korfmacher, a professor of environmental science at the Rochester Institute of Technology explained, the closer we can get to having our cities look like natural ecosystems, the better off we’ll be in heatwaves. As climate change makes summer days hotter, we’re going to have to think beyond just air conditioning to keep people cool and will have to look to nature to find more lasting solutions. Trees already have some pretty amazing mechanisms for dealing with heat themselves (we’ve even mimicked them in how we build buildings) but one of the simplest ways we can make our cities more sustainable and cooler as a result is to plant more trees and ensure that we’re preserving existing forests.

Two Cool Things: Videos of Apollo 11 Commemoration Events

We are still feeling the warm afterglow of the 50th Anniversary of Apollo 11 and thought both these videos captured its essence well.  The one above is from Space Camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama which successfully launched nearly 5,000 model rockets at the exact moment Apollo 11 lifted off decades ago — 8:32 a.m. local time on Monday, July 16.  They were attempting to break the Guinness record for the number of model rockets lifting off simultaneously — the previous record was 4,231 model rockets launched in summer 2018 at Teylingen College in the Netherlands.  And the video below is of the special presentation by the Smithsonian on the National Mall in Washington commemorating the anniversary of the moon landing by projecting a special video and light show on the Washington Monument.  I (Monica) got to see the final show on Saturday night at 11:30 — along with thousands of other space enthusiasts.  It was amazing!  Enjoy them both!

Catholic Energies Helps Diocese Go Solar

Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton, Va.  Photo: John Grace via The Washington Post

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Catholic Energies, a nonprofit organization that helps churches across the country switch to solar energy, is helping the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington to install 5,000 solar panels, the largest ground array in the nation’s capital, on a 5-acre plot owned by the Archdiocese that will provide Catholic Charities enough energy credits to offset the electricity costs of 12 of its properties across the District.  This is the second energy-saving project for Catholic Energies which just finished an installation of 440 solar panels on the roof of a Virginia church last month.  And the DC solar panels will sit atop a “pollinator meadow” of 650,000 nectar-bearing, flowering plants including black-eyed Susans, orange coneflowers and milkweed that are intended to invigorate local bee and butterfly populations.

Why This Matters:  This just goes to show that when the leader at the very top of an organization, such as a Pope or a President, provides leadership and moral direction, people will make it happen.  Pope Francis has often spoken out and convened leaders from around the globe urging them to address climate change.  He said in his 2015 Encyclical, “What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?” And he pressed for an “ecological conversion” by Catholics, imploring them to take care of the planet — to embrace things like recycling, tree planting and carpooling.  Amen to that.  Hopefully, more faith-based organizations will do the same.

Catholic Church and Climate Change

  • According to The Post, Catholic Energies is a sub-program of the nonprofit Catholic Climate Covenant, a national initiative launched in 2006 that seeks to educate and engage U.S. Catholics in caring for the environment.
  • It is working in other areas too — Catholic Energies told The Post that it has “about 25 projects in the pipeline, in eight states, representing between $12 million and $15 million in construction.”
  • Dan Misleh, the founder and executive director of Catholic Climate Covenant, said that there are other dioceses around the country, including in Atlanta and San Diego, that are working to switch their parishes and schools to solar power, however, only Catholic Energies is helping Catholic institutions to do so free of charge.

The Catholic Energies Funding Model

  • First, Catholic Energies conducts a free feasibility study and comes up with a possible design with the goal of creating at least 10 percent savings for Catholic institutions.
  • Then Catholic Energies locates a third-party investor, next letting the institution choose among several solar contractors, and finally, construction begins.
  • The investor agrees to pays the contractor to install a solar system in return the investor receives a 30 percent federal tax credit, as well as local financial incentives that vary by state — DC’s happen to be the most generous in the country.

One Troll Thing: Trump Reelection Campaign Sells $15 Plastics Straws

President Trump has made it evident that he has bigger problems than plastic straws but that hasn’t stopped his campaign from selling them in an effort to troll the conservation community….at $15 for 10 straws, no less. “Liberal paper straws don’t work,” the campaign site wrote. “STAND WITH PRESIDENT TRUMP and buy your pack of recyclable straws today.” While plastic straws have become a figment of a culture war in America, saying no to unnecessary plastic that can harm animals should be a bipartisan no-brainer.

A School in India is Charging Plastic Waste as “Tuition”

The Akshar School Image: The Sentinel, Assam

by Alexandra Patel

A school in Assam, India is rethinking the cost of education by requiring students to pay in the form of collected plastic waste. At the Akshar Forum School, this initiative of using plastic as school fees was devised to confront the staggering amounts of plastic waste in the region, as well as create greater environmental awareness among students and their families. Mazin Mukhtar, one of the school’s founder explained that, “We realized that education had to be socially, economically and environmentally relevant for these children.” The results have been really positive, as many families are now putting up signs in their homes and shops to spread awareness

The Environmental Cost: Assam is home to 1 million residents and produces around 37 tons of plastic garbage each day. Families often burn plastic for heat during the winter, exposing themselves and those around them to the toxic chemicals that are emitted.  

A New Idea: The plastic hauls brought in each day are then transformed by students into ecobricks – compacted plastic bottles and other plastic waste dense enough to be used for construction. These materials can then be used to build infrastructure throughout the community, such as new schools and road paths. As Time explained, attendance to the school was “previously free, but the initiative was started after a request for parents to participate in a recycling program failed, according to AFP. Parents have also been asked to promise not to burn plastics.”

Why This Matters: Getting families and entire communities involved in sustainable practices can help normalize them but more specifically teach children from a young age to be more cognizant of their impact on the planet. Across India, local governments have been working to ban single-use plastics especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed to abolish them by 2022. However, bans must also be accompanied by cultural shifts as plastic use is so ingrained in the lives of people across the world and all of us need to reshift our relationship with single-use plastics. 

The Week Ahead: July 22-28th

We hope that everyone survived the east coast heatwave and that after a steamy weekend your Monday is off to a fresh start. Here’s a quick recap of what the week ahead looks like:

  • Congress: On Wednesday the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on pathways to decarbonize the US economy, then on Thursday the House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on scientific integrity (or lack thereof) at the Dept. of the Interior.
  • Across the Pond: After months of turmoil, the UK’s Conservative Party will vote to replace current PM Theresa May on Tuesday. Her likely successor, Boris Johnson, stirs fear among climate scientists that he will make drastic cuts to climate change programs. Additionally, his supporters are demanding less talk of climate and a more hardline Brexit policy.
  • Weather: Scientists are closely monitoring a concentrated batch of downpours and thunderstorms near the Bahamas for fear that it may develop into a bigger storm.

ICYMI: Scientists wrote a eulogy for Iceland’s first glacier lost to climate change.

Atlantic Offshore Wind Projects – NY Moving Ahead, MA Stalled

Wind turbines off Rhode Island      Photo: Michael Dwyer, Associated Press

Late last week, the State of New York announced it had signed an agreement with Norwegian developer Equinor (in a joint venture with a U.S. firm) to build two massive projects off Long Island that will help the state achieve its plan to generate 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.  Meanwhile, the largest project in development now, Vineyard Wind in Massachusetts, hit permitting snags last week and is pushing to get the project’s federal Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) completed in the next 4-6 weeks — any further delay, according to the Company, will jeopardize the project as it is currently configured.

Why This Matters:  Another high profile offshore wind project in the Atlantic, Cape Wind, never got off the ground due to permitting issues.  But the State of Massachusetts was clearing the way for the Vineyard Wind project to move forward until locals in on Martha’s Vineyard voted last week to deny an application to lay transmission cables that would pass about a mile east of the Vineyard due to their disturbance of fish habitat. And then the federal government, without explanation, delayed approval of the project’s EIS, causing even further concern. These setbacks could be devastating, which would be a real shame given that New York State’s offshore projects are a few steps farther back in the process.  The environmental impacts of building and operating a large industrial site in the ocean are real and need to be mitigated, but the benefits of developing renewable energy are extremely significant overall. It would be a real frustration and something of a perversion of the environmental permitting process if Vineyard Wind fails because of permitting red tape.

Vineyard Wind’s Woes

  • The town of Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard denied the permit to lay cables out of concern that Vineyard Wind had not provided assurances against “adverse effects” from the cables after commercial fishermen questioned at a public hearing last month the company’s plan to mitigate the impacts of laying the cables.
  • Ironically, the fishermen in the region know that their ocean waters are warming faster than anywhere else in the Atlantic due to climate change, which may be causing them to be especially concerned about the impacts of the project on their already declining fishing catches.
  • Vineyard Wind is appealing to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to override the Edgartown decision.

New York Goes Big

Not Beating the Heat: Fires Across Arctic, Global Extremes in June

Photo of fire near Arctic Circle Trail in Greenland     Photo: Arctic News

The U.S. heatwave over the weekend (and it was hot — New York and Boston both set high temp records on Saturday) overshadowed some disturbing new photos that emerged late last week of vast fires in Siberia due to dried out swaths of peatland (aka bogs or swamps) that are usually frozen and soggy at this time of year, as well as a very rare outbreak of wildfires in Western Greenland And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that June was the hottest ever recorded globally (in 140 years of measurement), beating the previous record set in 2016, with 9 of the 10 warmest Junes taking place since 2010.

Why This Matters:  We know this warming is caused by greenhouse gas pollution which is in turn caused by humans, and we know we need to do something about it.  We also know that there are real health risks and economic impacts associated with the heat and warming temps generally being experienced during the winter and summer months, in addition to the devastating environmental consequences like fires and melting glaciers. The Wall Street Journal reported that over the weekend, calls for emergency medical services in New York City because of the heat spiked, peaking significantly above normal levels.  All this begs the question, why are we not trying harder to save ourselves?  Are we now numb to these urgent new stories?  As one climate commentator in the Guardian recently put it, “we’re stuck in a climate disaster movie – and it’s not even a very good one. The threat is complex and can feel remote, but we’re told the chances of survival are slim.”  Would changing the narrative help? Maybe. It is hard to know for sure because the news is what it is, and cannot be sugar-coated.

How Hot Was June?

Here are some of the key statistics according to NOAA:

  • “Averaged as a whole, the June 2019 global land and ocean temperature departure from average was the highest for June since global records began in 1880 at +0.95°C (+1.71°F). This value bested the previous record set in 2016 by 0.02°C (0.04°F).”
  • “June 1998 is the only value from the previous century among the 10 warmest Junes on record, and it is currently ranked as the eighth warmest June on record. Junes 2015, 2016, and 2019 are the only Junes that have a global land and ocean temperature departure from average above +0.90°C (+1.62°F).”
  • “During the year-to-date, the most notable warm temperature departures from average were present across parts of the Northern Hemisphere, specifically Alaska, western Canada, and central Russia, where temperature departures from average were +3.0°C (+5.4°F) or higher.”
  • “[C]ooler-than-average conditions were limited to parts of western Asia, Indonesia, across small areas in the Atlantic and North Pacific oceans, as well as the south-central contiguous United States.”

Fires Burning Like Wild in The Arctic

  • According to Europe’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service (CAMS), there have been at least 100 “intense and long-lived wildfires” above the Arctic Circle since June, The Washington Post reported, and these fires collectively emitted as much carbon dioxide as the country of Sweden’s total annual emissions.
  • Scientists at Copernicus commented that the duration, northern latitude and intensity of the fires make them atypical of what is seen in this region during the summer.